OPINION: It’s time for action on Alaska’s military mental health crisis

May is Mental Health Awareness month. I was acutely unaware of mental illness until near the end of the Vietnam War. I was in college, where daily conversations revolved around the war and particularly the draft. Hundreds of thousands of young men were being extracted from their jobs, homes and the arms of their loving families, and deposited in a war zone. Most of my generation watched as bystanders while the war rambled on for 20 years. Whatever one’s personal view of the situation, it was difficult to watch in real time and its visuals remain vivid.

While I was tucked safely away at business college, two of my cousins were risking their lives in Vietnam. One did not believe in killing and he served as a medic. The other served as a fighter pilot. Their families rejoiced when both returned home from Vietnam, seemingly uninjured. The medic later became a minister. The fighter pilot later died by suicide.

I don’t recall knowing that Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, or PTSD, existed or that it was a mental illness. It is now known to be a real and treatable medical condition but despite that, the numbers of cases continue to rise among the military population and suicides are prevalent. This is particularly true in Alaska, where many service members are located far from their extended families and are subject to a climate that is dark and cold much of the year. Isolation and gloom tend to exacerbate mental illness.

I don’t doubt mental health is a priority issue for the U.S. military and that they are doing their best to take care of service members, but I don’t know that they have the resources to deliver mental health treatment in an efficient and effective manner. Furthermore, I don’t know that it is the military’s job to do so. I had a mentor in business school who told me that organizations are usually successful when they do most what they do best and do least what they do worst. It’s a bit simplistic, but I think it applies to this situation. The function of the U.S. military is to protect this country and the freedoms that its citizens cherish. This is what the military does best, and it does so at an unsurpassed level of excellence. The function of trained medical providers is to combat PTSD and related mental conditions. This is what they do best, also at an unsurpassed level of excellence.

On April 19, the Anchorage Daily News reported that U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan was planning to hold a pair of listening sessions with soldiers at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and at Fort Wainwright. Sen. Sullivan said, “It’s a horrible crisis. In the last four years, more soldiers have died in Alaska from suicide than were killed in action in Afghanistan. Forty. It shouldn’t be that way.” He recounted a personal experience when a Marine died from suicide while under his command, and his remorse about not doing more to prevent it.

Sen. Sullivan is now in a position to do more than host listening sessions.

Since mental health services are best left to professionals, and given the prevalence of recent suicides at Alaska military bases, it is my opinion that mental health clinics need to be established on military bases. There are already private sector clinics that treat military and their families, regardless of discharge status or ability to pay, and with no wait times. And as is the case for all U.S. citizens, the right to confidentiality of private health information is guaranteed. These clinics already operate and should be moved on base so they are more accessible to military members and their families. Due to the high rate of suicide at Fort Wainwright, the first on-base military mental health clinic in the U.S. should be located there.

Other actions that would make mental health care more accessible for military members include:

• requiring TriCare and TriWest to reimburse for services provided by trained but not yet licensed mental health clinicians, the same way Medicaid does;

• making sure federal grant dollars are not restricted to specific organizations but are open to application by any qualified provider, and

• encouraging state licensing boards to make it easier for providers to transfer licenses from one state to another.

Regarding the issue of mental illness, the time for talking and listening is long past and the time for readiness and action is now. Readiness and action are concepts that our military understands and employs on a 24/7 basis to keep us safe. I’m hoping for a vigorous and immediate campaign against an enemy that is killing their own, whether we be at peace or at war.

My deepest sympathies to Sen. Sullivan and all military members affected by losses of their brothers and sisters due to suicide.

Susan Koropp Crosson is a lifelong Alaskan and small-business owner. Her cousin, Dennis Starr, died Dec. 18, 1994, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His name is not included on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., although he is recognized by the U.S. military as being a veteran who died from non-combat injuries related to the Vietnam War. Susan has served on the Board of Directors of Alaska Behavioral Health for more than 20 years.

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