The number of U.S. Army Alaska soldiers who died by suicide increased sharply in 2021 even after the military invested millions of dollars to address an identified mental health crisis at the state’s two major bases.
At least 11 soldiers stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Fort Wainwright died by suicide last year. Six more deaths are being investigated as possible suicides.
Top military officials say finding solutions to the worsening problem continues to be a top priority — and that the pandemic seems to have exacerbated existing risk factors.
‘It’s just different here’
Last year was the deadliest by far for Alaska Army suicides over the last eight years: Seven soldiers lost their lives to suicide in 2020 and eight in 2019. Between 2014 and 2018, there were four or fewer suicides per year.
Speaking during a media briefing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage last month, Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler called “relationship issues” a common theme among the recently confirmed suicides. He also mentioned the challenge of weathering the isolation of Alaska’s long, dark winters so far from home for military members new to the state.
“It’s just different here,” Eifler said.
There’s a certain kind of person who typically loves the outdoors and is drawn to Alaska’s remoteness, said retired Col. Mark Colbrook, who served as the deputy commander for U.S. Army Alaska at Wainwright, near Fairbanks, from 2017 to 2019.
“People either love or hate Alaska,” he said.
Colbrook said he thinks the problem isn’t solely an Alaska one — “There are clearly challenges anytime that people are not geographically close to family and support networks, which of course goes hand in hand with being in the military” — but living somewhere as physically isolated as Fairbanks often compounds the problem.
“You’re geographically separated from everywhere. You’re on different time zones than family and friends. There’s not a lot of entertainment options that some people are used to,” he said. “It’s just a different culture.”
Colbrook, who moved 20 times over his 29-year military career, said he’s seen the way places like Alaska can be especially challenging for young soldiers who may not have much experience living so far from home.
“They’re away from friends, away from their original support network,” he said. “So they have to build that on the fly. And that can be hard.”
From a thought to an action
In response to a rise in suicides among Alaska-based soldiers, the Army in 2019 launched a study at Fort Wainwright and then implemented changes there that cost upward of $200 million in 2020, according to a USA Today investigation.
The Army’s study found that risk factors for suicide included “isolation, stigma, limited resources, poor coping skills, alcohol use, and poor quality of life.”
A third of the 4,000 surveyed soldiers stationed in Fort Wainwright said they couldn’t sleep well, and another third said that in the past year they “were worried food would run out before they got money to buy more, or the food they bought did not last and they did not have money to get more.”
About 10.8% had thought about or considered suicide, according to the report.
A range of recommendations came out of the report, including blackout curtains in barracks to help with sleep, better and healthier food options, and improved access to mental health counselors on base. Plans for new gym equipment and living quarters were planned and purchased.
But despite the attention and efforts, the suicide rate among soldiers in Alaska has continued to rise at the same time a global pandemic exacerbated many of the risk factors identified in the report.
With COVID-19 came less travel home to see loved ones, less time spent off base at restaurants and bars, and generally fewer opportunities for human connection and recreation.
“The sense of isolation that people had was probably greater during the pandemic. And that’s what leads people to go from a thought to an action,” Colbrook said, adding that he’d be leery to judge the effectiveness of programs or initiatives that were implemented right before a global health crisis.
The problem is not altogether new. Nationally over the last 20 years, four times as many soldiers and veterans died by suicide compared to those who died during active combat.
But data bears out the role the pandemic may have played in worsening an existing problem. In 2020, suicides among soldiers rose by about 30% compared to the the previous year, according to reporting by the Associated Press.
The ages of the soldiers who died by suicide in 2021 in Alaska ranged from 20 to 38, with an average age of 25, according to U.S. Army Alaska spokesman John Pennell. Nine were men and two were women.
In Alaska and nationally, the military has long struggled with other often interconnected issues — such as how it responds to sexual assault, and how it protects LGBTQ service members from discrimination.
Spc. Kaylie Harris, who worked as a U.S. Army military police officer at JBER in Anchorage, was one of the soldiers who died by suicide in Alaska in 2021.
Harris had reported being sexually assaulted 10 days after she came out as a lesbian on social media.
The 21-year-old died in May, days after an encounter with her alleged attacker who had been assigned to the same building for a training exercise.
When asked during a briefing last month what the Army was doing to support LGBTQ service members in particular, Eifler said that they were “trying to treat everyone the same.”
Pennell said in an email it is the policy of the Army to provide equal and fair treatment for all soldiers.
In December, Congress passed legislation that would alter who decides whether service members accused of sexual assault, rape, murder, domestic violence and certain other criminal offenses would be prosecuted.
Under the new legislation, that responsibility would fall to military prosecutors instead of commanders. Proponents say the shift would remove bias and help ensure that sexual assault cases would be handled fairly.
While rising rates of military suicides are a problem nationwide, Alaska’s military suicide rate is about four times the national average.
Eifler pointed to the statistics that showed the suicide rate at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks was particularly high: The count is more than double the number of suicides that happened among soldiers stationed at JBER over the last eight years.
Eifler and others say the Army has been working on broader solutions — including making it possible for service members to say whether they want to be stationed in Alaska. The hope is that they will be able to “bring people here who want to be here,” Eifler said.
Another challenge includes a shortage of counselors who can help soldiers struggling with their mental health. That’s true around the state, Eifler said.
Alaska Army leadership has requested additional counselors and chaplains, and is working on trying to improve pay and benefits to increase workforce, he said.
Other measures include regular wellness checks, risk assessments for new soldiers to figure out who may need additional support, and a general effort to ensure service members know they won’t be punished or demoted for coming forward to ask help.
Colbrook said that the challenge here is that often, what works for one soldier might not work for another, and that it’s very easy for people to fall through the cracks.
“So you just have to stay really, really close in touch with your soldiers, notice when somebody is acting different, and try to guide them to what do you think’s going to help them,” he said.
The recent report also found that eight of 11 soldiers who died by suicide last year had reported chronic pain issues at some point.
“Some notes indicated that chronic pain caused issues in their work environment and with their fellow soldiers. For example, soldiers did not want to show the level of pain they were experiencing because they feared appearing weak in front of leadership or subordinates,” the report said.
Colbrook said that while he’d never seen chronic pain linked to suicides during his years serving in the military, the nature of soldiers’ work is physically demanding — and their ability to complete physical tasks and healing from injuries can often mean the difference between getting fired and getting promoted.
Learning how to manage injuries that occur can be a difficult balance, he said.
“We want people that are physically fit and able to defend our nation. So I think that that puts an impetus on people to push through pain,” Colbrook said. Ignoring injuries is what tends to lead to chronic conditions, he explained.
Eifler said he thought it was important for military leadership to try to shift the culture around asking for help — and viewing that as a strength rather than a weakness.
“We’re redefining what we mean when we say ‘Arctic tough,’ ” Eifler said.
For some, that shift in thinking can feel antithetical to their training as soldiers.
“If you’re isolated on a battlefield, you’ve got to be able to take care of things yourself. It’s not that you don’t ask for help, but if help isn’t there, you still have to do your job, still have to get your mission done,” Colbrook said.
That can lead to a culture “of subordinating your own needs to the greater good of the military and of the nation, which can lead people to think that that’s how they have to be in every aspect of their life,” he said. “And that’s just — that’s not true.”
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression or a mental health crisis, there are many options available to help. Here are a few easily accessible ones:
• Call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-HELP.
• Call the National Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-TALK.
• Call the national disaster distress hotline at 1-800-985-5990.
• In Anchorage, the Alaska Native Medical Center’s emergency room is open 24/7 and can help any Alaska Native or American Indian dealing with a mental crisis or grief. The hospital is at 4315 Diplomacy Drive. You can also reach them by phone at 907-563-2662.
• For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.
• For more information on the signs of suicide, visit afsp.org/preventing-suicide/suicide-warning-signs.
• Service members and veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide and those who know a service member or veteran in crisis can call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, text 838255, or chat online at veteranscrisisline.net/chat.
• The Trevor Project helps LGBTQ people struggling with thoughts of suicide at 866-488-7386 or by text at 678-678.