Army Spec. Joseph Saunders was serving a tour in Iraq when his wife told him she wanted a divorce. He was floored. Pulling guard duty six hours on, six hours off, he had a lot of time to brood about his future. His friends worried about him. Alone and overwhelmed with grief one day, Saunders grabbed his rifle, put it on semiautomatic, placed the barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger.
Stunned, he went into what he calls "soldier mode" and started disassembling his rifle to find the problem -- a missing firing pin. He soon learned that another soldier, fearing Saunders might try to kill himself, had removed the pin.
Saunders is one of thousands of military men and women who have attempted suicide in recent years. In 2009 alone, Army data show at least 1,713 active-duty soldiers, probably more, tried to end their lives; 162 succeeded (include reservists, and the figure rises to 239). Thousands more engage in what the Army terms "high-risk" behavior -- drinking excessively, abusing prescription narcotics and illegal drugs -- that threatens to spin out of control, rendering soldiers a danger to themselves and those around them.
"I didn't care about anything," recalls Saunders. "I didn't care about friends. I didn't care about my family. The only thing I thought was my world was over. Everything I worked for and the life I had outside the Army was gone."
Saunders is lucky. With the encouragement of his buddies and unit leaders, he sought help to overcome his anguish and regain his emotional equilibrium. Now reconciled to a future he didn't anticipate, he tells his story in a new training video the Army hopes will reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health problems and educate soldiers on how to recognize and help others in need. The video is just one of many approaches the Army is taking to raise awareness and improve its outreach to troubled soldiers after nearly a decade of war.
"The stress of nine years of persistent conflict has had an impact on the force," says Col. Chris Philbrick, formerly director of the Army's Suicide Prevention Task Force and now deputy director of a newly created follow-on organization, the Health Promotion and Risk Reduction Task Force. The first task force's work culminated in July with the release of a 15-month study on suicide in the Army. The new task force is charged with implementing its 240 recommendations.
The study shed light on much more than the Army's rising suicide rate, though. Pulling together data from 32 databases, researchers cataloged a host of growing problems, from drug addiction to domestic violence and other criminal behavior. In 2009 alone, 74,646 criminal offenses were committed by soldiers, including 16,997 drug-related cases. More than 1,300 soldiers on active duty have failed two or more drug tests, and more than 1,000 have committed two or more felonies -- numbers that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when some leaders worried the Army's zero tolerance for mistakes was driving out too many good soldiers.
In the Oct. 1 issue of Government Executive, Katherine McIntire Peters looks at the issue of mental health in the United States Army.