Army Special Operators Seek to Reduce Suicide with ‘Bottom-Led’ Approach
Units have been ordered to develop anti-suicide efforts based on the USASOC's new strategy.
Suicide deaths have increased over the past five years among the elite troops of Army’s Special Operations Command, or USASOC, so the command is making changes to better support soldiers and their families. The results could shape how other parts of the military deal with the problem.
“We got to get in front of people and say, ‘This lifestyle is challenging; you're going to need some help along the way, whether it's a medical doctor, the mental piece…just to perform better’,” Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson, the deputy commander for USASOC at Fort Bragg, told reporters Wednesday. “You can be the toughest guy in the world. You're gonna hurt yourself at some point.”
The command has about 36,000 soldiers, the vast majority of whom are on active duty, and they represent more than half of the military’s special operations forces. In 2022, USASOC reported 18 suicide deaths, up from six in 2017 and 12 in 2018.
As of Sept. 30, the Army reported 195 confirmed or suspected suicide deaths across all components. The Pentagon has not yet released its final pan-military quarterly report for 2022.
The USASOC strategy, which was finalized in September, is based on Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, which says individuals’ risk is highest if they don’t feel like they belong, are a burden, and have the means, such as access to firearms. So the updated approach aims to build a sense of community, create a sense of purpose, promote wellness and stress management, and collect data. The data will help target and track markers for overall wellbeing and catch vulnerable operators earlier.
USASOC brigades and similar units have been directed create a suicide prevention liaison that would lead developments and efforts, Jeff Wright, deputy director of the command’s Human Performance and Wellness Program, told reporters Wednesday.
The strategy adds to existing prevention efforts and is considered a “bottom-led” effort that allows special operations groups to determine what works best for their teams and their families. Units are expected to create strategy action plans by April when they’ll be evaluated on effectiveness and ultimately inform the command on best practices.
Roberson said leaders are being trained to be more aware of individuals' behaviors and limits. He said gathering and analyzing data has become increasingly important to detect mental distress. Data from wearables, for example, helps commanders understand how well their troops are sleeping.
“Sleep is a great indicator. Are you having, under mental distress? You can't sleep. We know this. Our job is to make sure that our students understand this, that our soldiers understand” how to interpret personal data and performance to evaluate individuals as they come in and throughout their careers.
“I think this is a great new horizon for us to improve people’s performance and outcomes.”
Wright said soldiers’ assessment data, which includes markers for physical and spiritual performance, cognitive and psychological tests, enters a database continually.
“And we'll follow that soldier” from the qualification course to when they get to their unit, he said. “That data will migrate with them. So over the long haul of a career, we have touch points where we're able to kind of see how well that soldiers performing” over time to figure out what assistance can be provided.
The result is being able to “see where we need to inject ourselves from a performance standpoint. And then be able to give that feedback to the soldier. Here's how you were doing. Here's what you looked like a couple of years ago, here's where you're at now. Are we still on track because we're areas you want to improve your performance on?”
The 2023 defense policy law also includes initiatives designed to improve how DOD reviews and reports on suicide rates in the military since 9/11, including breakdowns by occupation, service, and grade. Congress also requested briefings on the efficacy of suicide prevention reforms.
But there’s a cultural aspect that the deputy commander said won’t change quickly, but stressing holistic health and wellness, particularly in the schoolhouses, should help.
Survivors also noted the cultural barriers in the Special Operations Command community while expressing hope that the new approach could help spot struggling servicemembers sooner.
Through her experience, Erica Wirka, surviving spouse of Warrant Officer Johnny Wirka of the 7th Special Forces Group, decided to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and plans to support and assist others particularly in military communities and addicted populations.
“I don't believe we're designed to do this life alone. We need the support of others and that community and I hope to be a source of that support in a professional professional capacity,” said Wirka, alluding to her own bouts with suicidal thoughts after her husband’s death in 2021. “Though Johnny possessed great strength and fortitude as a person. He was still one that fell victim to his own distorted thoughts. Just going to show that even the strongest among us are not immune to suicidal ideations. Vulnerability and reaching out when help is needed, is one of the hardest things for us to do. I think it's especially hard in the SOF community.”
“Maybe I'm going a little outside of my lane,” she said, “but you know, we've got these soldiers that are, you know, trained to not be in vulnerable positions when they're on missions…even in a training situation—no vulnerability. And that is what they are taught. But that vulnerability can be life-saving.”
Master Sgt. Trevor Beaman of the 7th Special Forces Groups, who has survived multiple suicide attempts, stressed the importance of community and reaching out when in distress.
“We're seeing a lot of hard things on deployments. So that's a really hard thing to say that it's hurting me, but at the same time I used it to a benefit,” Beaman said.
Beaman said the strategy and its use of Joiner’s theory rang true to his own experiences.
“Being vulnerable didn't take away anything about me being an operator or a warrior,” he said. “It did the opposite. It really enhanced me to be a better thinker and a better provider to the unit that I was in.”
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