January 19 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - January 19, 2011

             GEN. CHIARELLI:  Well, good morning, and thank you all for being here today.  I'm joined, as you can see, by Lieutenant General Jack Stultz, the chief of the Army Reserve, and Major General Ray Carpenter, the acting director of the Army National Guard.  

             I'd like to make a brief opening statement, and then we'll field any questions you might have. 

             In calendar year 2010, the Army had 343 suicides of soldiers, Department of the Army civilians, and family members -- 69 more than in calendar year 2009.  We achieved modest success in reducing the number of suicides of soldiers serving on active duty.  However, we saw a significant increase in the number of suicides of soldiers not serving on active duty, to include a doubling in the Army National Guard. 

             Now, for those of you who don't track this, when we say the active component force, we mean the 569,000 folks that are currently part of the active component force, plus all soldiers during that calendar year that we mobilize.  So that includes soldiers from the Guard and Reserve. 

             And that total number on -- in any year, at least for the last eight to 10 years, has run anywhere between 725 and 750,000 total folks.  So when I say "active component," I also include members of the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard who are mobilized during that year. 

             Our challenge in the year ahead is to keep building upon the initial progress made in the active component.  We'll continue in our efforts to replicate that progress in the reserve component, primarily by expanding the reach and accessibility of the programs and services that are positively impacting the lives of soldiers serving on active duty. 

             We attribute the modest decrease in suicides by soldiers serving on active duty last year to the programs and policy changes that have been implemented since the establishment of the Health Promotion, Risk Reduction Task Force and council in March of 2009.  Among our efforts to date, we're in the midst of implementing Army-wide, the chief's -- and I call that it chief's because he was the genesis for it, a fantastic program, the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program.  It focused on improving soldiers' resiliency. 

             We've established a pain-management task force to appropriately manage the use of pain medications and adopt best practices Army-wide. We've initiated face-to-face post-deployment behavioral health screenings for all returning brigades in order to better identify at- risk soldiers and ensure that they receive appropriate treatment. 

             Looking ahead, we believe these and other efforts will take us from a leveling off of active-duty suicides to a reduction in suicides -- suicide attempts and other high-risk behavior. 

             The reality is, we are able to more effectively influence those soldiers serving on acting duty and help mitigate the stressors affecting them. 

             Conversely, it's much more difficult to do so in the case of individuals not serving on active duty, because they are often geographically separated, removed from the support network provided by military installations.  They lack the ready camaraderie of fellow soldiers and the daily oversight and hands-on assistance from members of the chain of command experienced while serving on active duty.  In many cases, these soldiers have limited or reduced access to care and services.  Meanwhile, they are more vulnerable to the challenges of an adverse economy and a troubled labor market, especially for our young people. 

             While we've learned a tremendous amount and taken actions to support these soldiers over the last couple of years, we recognize we must be even more aggressive in determining how the program and efforts that are working effectively in support of our soldiers on active duty may be modified or expanded to better support soldiers not serving on active duty, Department of the Army civilians and family members.   

             We must continue to find ways to replicate that progress and leverage Army, Veterans Administration and community programs and services in order to deliver a similar effective level of care and support to individuals not living and working near a military installation. 

             I can assure you this remains a top priority, and we're working very, very hard to get at this unique challenge by working with employers of Guard and Reserve soldiers and the private sector to mitigate economic stress on reserve component soldiers, by educating soldiers and the public about the overuse and abuse of prescription drugs, by improving families' awareness of and access to training and resources, and by enhancing the quality and access to medical care, telehealth and telemedicine options and counseling services. 

             We're also encouraging communities and community-based organizations to get involved, recognizing that particularly for citizen soldiers not serving on active duty, family, peers and employers represent the bedrock of their support network. 

             The bottom line is this is a significant issue, and clearly there is much to be done.  But I am confident many of our nation's very best and brightest men and women from academia, industry, the medical community, DOD and government as a whole are working tirelessly in this seminal area.  I assure you we remain committed to finding further ways to promote resiliency, reduce the incidence of high-risk behavior, improve the quality of family and soldier support programs, and eliminate the stigma associated with seeking and receiving help across our force of 1.1 million and beyond, to include our Department of the Army civilians and family members. 

             Again, thank you for coming.  And now Jack, Ray and I will be happy to answer any questions that you might have. 

             GEN. CHIARELLI:  Yes, ma'am. 

             Q:  Sir, on the decrease in active-duty, could you give us an example of a program change or policy change that you think made a difference?  In some details that we can understand, why is it -- why does it seem to be working now compared to things that didn't? 

             GEN. CHIARELLI:  I can name a couple.  I think the institution of comprehensive soldier fitness has had an effect and will have even a greater effect in the year to come, just as we continue to roll out that program and get more mass to resilience trainers not only in the active component force, but in the Guard and in the Reserve. 

             We know that resilient soldiers are less likely to try to commit suicide.  We just -- we know that.  And we've got some real data now from comprehensive soldier fitness at the University of Nebraska, which compared -- de-identified psychological data collected on soldiers who later completed suicide with a group randomly selected, a living comparison group. 

             And the researchers found that, broadly speaking, resilient soldiers do not complete suicide.  And we know we can teach soldiers through that program to become more resilient.  So this to us is exciting. And as you know, we've got online modules.  We've got master resilience trainers that are down in units, and they're working to teach soldiers to be more resilient. 

             I think the confidential alcohol and drug treatment program, where if an individual at, currently, eight installations feels that they have a problem, they can self-refer themselves for counseling and that's not reported to their chain of command -- and although it received some resistance from the field when we first implemented it, at all eight locations where it has been implemented commanders really, really appreciate the program because they've had people come forward and seek help that because of the stigma wouldn't normally do that. 

             And I -- and my final thing I'll tell you is I think the increase in marriage and family-life counselors is a huge one.  MFLCs are our program, and I'd invite you to go out and talk to families at posts, camps and stations.  Not only do we have them down in units, but we're pushing them into schools, we're pushing them into communities.  And they are just an unbelievable resource that's highly thought of by the field. 

             Q:  And this comprehensive fitness is about a year old?  The drug program -- (off mic)

             GEN. CHIARELLI:  We've been rolling that out for about the last year, and if I could, I would have it in every single post, camp and station.  But what I can't -- I can't get enough substance abuse counselors hired.  It's not a money issue now; it's a supply issue. There just aren't enough of them. 

             And they are also being pulled out of that particular labor market as substance abuse counselors because there's such a need for behavior health counselors.  Many of them have the same bona fides and credentials that allow them to fleet up and become -- because we have a shortage there, too -- behavior health counselors, which it seems like every time I hire 10, I lose 10.  And it's not that they go someplace else; it's they become behavior health counselors, or work their way into that field. 

             Q:  And the marriage and life counseling, that's the same program but more of it?  But --  

             GEN. CHIARELLI:  Yeah, that's the same program but more of it -- (chuckles) -- a lot more of it.   

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