Top brass talked about efforts to curb rising military suicide rates at a congressional hearing Friday.
In this photo taken July 20, 2011, Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. At a House Armed Services hearing on military suicides Friday, Sept. 9, 2011, Chu testified, and in a dramatic moment described the death of her nephew, Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, 21, who put a gun to his head and killed himself while in a foxhole in Afghanistan after fellow Marines allegedly hazed him one night.
WASHINGTON - California Rep. Judy Chu is not a member of the House Armed Services subcommittee that held a hearing on military suicides Friday, but she took a seat with her colleagues to tell the story of her nephew who committed suicide.
Chu's nephew, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Harry Lew of Santa Clara, Calif., killed himself in Afghanistan in April after his fellow Marines hazed him for falling asleep at a post. Criminal charges were filed against three Marines in the case, which Chu said was emblematic of a larger problem the military faces addressing how to curb military suicides.
"There is a culture there that the military has had a hard time getting a handle on it," Chu, a Democrat, said after the hearing.
A recent Star Tribune investigation found the military often misses warning signals from service members who later committed suicide, and that no one in command is held accountable when a suicide occurs. In one case, a 19-year-old from Cloquet, Minn., stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., was briefly hospitalized after texting his family and saying he was going to kill himself, was returned to his unit within days, and killed himself 20 days later.
Including the Reserves and National Guard, more soldiers killed themselves last year than died in combat.
Hazing was just one issue discussed at Friday's congressional hearing. Top officials from four branches of the military testified about ways to lower military suicide rates, from erasing the stigma associated with mental illness to better tracking veterans in the Reserves who don't live on bases.
One of the biggest challenges, the military officials said, was changing a culture that's hesitant to reach out for aid.
"You have a group that doesn't want help from the outside, that's very self sufficient, and of course you add that to an incredibly stressful situation and a predominantly younger group of folks," said U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a retired National Guard member.
California Rep. Susan Davis, the subcommittee's ranking member, said soldiers often elect not to seek treatment because they're concerned of the ramifications. "I continue to hear, no matter how much we talk about stigma, people fear for their careers and that's one reason they don't seek help," she said.
Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead Jr. said the goal is to change that, so service members feel that "it's OK to hurt, it's OK to ask for help, it's OK to be less than 100 percent."
The military officials outlined specific ideas they thought were effective, like a Marines pilot program where veterans can talk anonymously with other Marines about their problems.
Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said it's important to provide suicide prevention education to all individuals in a soldier's life, from family members to fellow soldiers to officers, because there can be gaps between health evaluations. "It's going to be that personal encounter that you're going to pick up on," he said, "that will allow you to ask the question, care for the individual and then escort the individual to treatment."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb