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National Action Alliance For Suicide Prevention

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, National Press Club, Washington DC, Friday, September 10, 2010

Thank you, Secretary Sebelius, for that kind introduction, and for inviting me to speak here today.  The launch of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention is an important and timely effort.  As Secretary of Defense, my top institutional priority is taking care of those who have born the burden and paid the price for protecting our nation.  That includes doing everything possible to prevent military suicides.  It’s always a horrible tragedy to see a servicemember safely off of the battlefield only to lose them to this scourge – we can, must, and will do better.

Some context to the challenges we face:  Our military has been at war for nearly a decade, the longest war in our history.  The post-9/11 campaigns have demanded repeated and extended deployments and exposure to combat, placing unprecedented stresses on our troops, their families, and their support networks.  Advances in protective and battlefield medicine have allowed more of our war fighters to survive their wounds.  But the survivors often suffer from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, and other psychological ailments – all factors that can increase the risk of suicide.  We are also confronting a historical stigma attached to these types of wounds.  A lack of understanding that they, too, are an inevitable consequence of combat.  That those fighting to recover deserve respect for their sacrifice.  As well as the best, state-of-the-art care.

The department has taken steps to alleviate the stress on the force in general, and to help  all those who are struggling and at risk.  Some of those steps include:

  • Expanding the size of the Army and Marines in order to increase the time at home among those who have been most-frequently deployed;
  • Adding more than 2,000 mental health providers to military treatment facilities, part of a on-going expansion effort to increase access to these services; and
  • Improving the coordination and publicity of available services for National Guard members and their families, who often don’t have access to the same support systems as active duty troops. 

We’ve also taken measures to change the culture and attitudes of our military.  Troops should know that their careers and security clearances are not at risk when they seek the psychological help they need.  And I’d like to honor all of those – from junior enlisted members to senior officers, such as Army General Carter Ham – who have come forward to tell their stories of survival and recovery, and thus give hope to many of their comrades.

As with almost every issue in our military, progress on this front comes down to leadership. All those in command and leadership positions – including junior officers and NCOs closest to the issue – they need to aggressively encourage those under them to seek help if needed, and also set an example by doing the same.

In everything we do, we must remember that every soldier, sailor, airman, or marine is part, not just of the military, but also a larger community.  Their families, their hometowns, their civilian employers, their places of worship – all must be involved in the solution.

To that end, the Alliance’s Executive Committee membership is a welcome public/private partnership, including all sectors that need to be involved for a successful nation-wide suicide prevention strategy.  This is important to me personally, as many years ago my only uncle committed suicide. I want to thank Senator Smith for his being willing to take time to co-chair this effort. On behalf of the Defense Department, I’m particularly glad that Secretary McHugh will be co-chairing this committee.  As Secretary, John has led the Army’s suicide prevention efforts, helping to bring together the relevant actors and organizations within his department in a vigorous and comprehensive campaign.  He is ideally suited to share the military’s accumulated experience and knowledge on these issues, as well as to learn from other Alliance members and bring those lessons back to DOD.

It is the on-going duty of this department to do everything possible to care for those who protect our nation. I am confident that the insights and efforts of the Alliance will enable us to more effectively fulfill this mission.

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