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Daily-News Miner: Secretary of the Army talks Fort Wainwright improvements following suicide report

By Alistair Gardiner

On Monday, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy was in town for his first visit to Fort Wainwright since he landed the job. While it wasn’t the express purpose of his visit, one topic dominated a media roundtable: the high number of suicides that have occurred on base in recent years.

McCarthy was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and sworn in as the 24th secretary of the U.S. Army in late September. As secretary, he has statutory responsibilities for all matters relating to the U.S. Army, including the recruitment, organization, training, equipping and care of 1.4 million active duty, National Guard, Reserve soldiers, Department of the Army civilians and their families.

While introducing himself to the small group of reporters gathered, McCarthy touched on the reasons for his visit, which included issues relating to “quality of life.”

“It was great to get out on the ground. There were a couple of different objectives for us on the ground: obviously, to take a look at readiness and how we support national objectives up here, but also quality-of-life related issues,” he said during the roundtable. “We did a lot of listening and we learned a lot.”

“Quality of life” was among the factors relating to a recent increase in suicides on base, according to the conclusions of an epidemiological consultation report, referred to as an EPICON, which was conducted last year. According to an executive summary of the report, which covers January 2014 through March 2019, there were confirmed suicides of soldiers at Fort Wainwright. Five of those occurred between May 2018 and March 2019.

While the report did identify a number of contributing factors and included a list of recommendations to tackle the issue, it did not find a definitive cause for the recent increase in suicides.

“It is very challenging to really truly identify root causes associated with this,” McCarthy told reporters on Monday, before describing the “investment in some of the things we needed to do to improve the quality of life here on the ground.”

The improvements to base that have already been made include: 24/7 staffing at the Wolf’s Lair Fitness Center; a 10% increase in basic daily food allowance; on-call shuttle transportation around base; over-the-counter dispensing of vitamin D; a $240,000 investment in entertainment such as music and comedy; and an intensive outpatient behavioral health program that began taking referrals on Dec. 16, with the first patients receiving care on Jan. 6. 

“We’ve made some quick adjustments, but some of the things that we looked at over the course of these 24 hours were longer term investments — much larger, much more comprehensive. And ones for which we can try to influence the budget we’re building now for FY22,” he said.

Pending improvements to the base include more than $900,000 worth of new gym equipment, which is due to arrive by April; a new dining facility; renovations to a number of barracks; and blackout blinds to be installed in all the barracks by May, among others.

McCarthy also spoke about an initiative called “This Is My Squad,” which seeks to build a culture of companionship, open communication, and awareness of mental health between soldiers.

“There’s no greater mechanism that we have other than making cohesive units,” McCarthy said. “The men and women to your left and right, those are the people who help you get through a tough day.”

Also present at the roundtable was Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, who was sworn in on Aug. 9. Grinston’s duties involve being the Army chief of staff’s personal adviser on matters affecting the enlisted force. He devotes the majority of his time traveling to Army installations to observe training and to interact with soldiers and their families. The “This Is My Squad” initiative is something he’s been trying to implement since last fall.

He described the initiative as trying to instill an attitude in which soldiers can remind themselves about “the things that you can do to remember what is great about being alive — and go and do some of those things.”

“It’s a positive look at life, where you wake up and you say ‘I joined the Army because I wanted to do this — I wanna do that PT, I wanna climb that hill and I want to be challenged,” he said.

He noted that it’s not just about soldiers, but entire military families. While he’s enthusiastic about the initiative and the various improvements being made to the base, Grinston struggled to answer a question on how military leadership intends to measure the effectiveness of the changes.

“It’s always hard to gauge happiness,” he said. “We want to see ideations down and we want to see less suicides. That’s going to be our gauge, I think, ultimately. We’ve had a higher number and we want that number to go down.”

McCarthy added that, with the initiative and a new culture of openness, the soldiers themselves become a gauge for each other.

“Awareness ultimately is the tool — understanding the warning signs,” he said. “It’s as much about education and what we call, very simply: ‘This Is My Squad.’ It’s about knowing your teammate, to your left and your right. Knowing them better, about their families, the challenges they face in their life, so you’re going to be there for them on a tough day. If it does not become part of your DNA, that’s where the challenges begin.”

“When you know the people in your squad and those around you, you can understand when something changes,” Grinston added.

Overall, McCarthy expressed his satisfaction with Army leadership’s response to the issue and noted that more improvements and programs are on the horizon.

“I think the leadership team has been very aggressive in responding. They’ve come forward with additional requests,” he said. “It’s a complex problem, but they have the entire Army behind them.”

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