Army Aims to Improve Soldiers’ Mental Well-being
By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy
Special to American Forces Press Service
NASHVILLE, Tenn., Sept. 16, 2009 With soldier suicides reaching what Army leadership is calling “alarming numbers,” a renewed emphasis is being placed on soldiers’ mental well-being, the Army’s second in command said.
Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli addresses citizen-soldiers and -airmen from 54 states and territories at the 131st Annual National Guard Association of the United States conference in Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 13, 2009. Chiarelli emphasized caring for soldiers and their families’ mental well-being as part of the Army’s strategy to care for its forces. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“We have a force that is much more resilient than I ever thought it was going to be, but it is much more stressed,” Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, told an audience here Sept. 13 at the National Guard Association of the United States conference.
“In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of soldiers, both active and reserve components, struggling with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
The Army has confirmed 111 soldier suicides as of early September, and 54 suicides have been confirmed in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve. Chiarelli added that violence, alcohol and substance abuse, and destructive or reckless behaviors have increased among soldiers.
“The challenge facing the Army today is the overall well-being of the force,” the general said. “And that force includes the families.”
The Army’s aim, he said, is to increase soldiers’ overall resiliency and to make them aware of programs that can help.
“In the past, the Army’s approach was largely reactive -- to treat or discipline soldiers who violated Army standards. That has changed,” Chiarelli said. The Army now will assess and intervene early in the process to identify and mitigate issues before they become significant concerns, he explained.
Chiarelli highlighted an ongoing collaboration struck in October 2008 between the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health.
“We realize we must become proactive if we want to be successful in the challenging environment we find ourselves in today,” he said.
Another way to solve some of the pressures facing soldiers is to increase the amount of time between deployments. Chiarelli cited an example of one Army unit that has a 3 percent medical nondeployment rate, versus other units’ 12- to 15-percent rate.
When he asked his advisors what made that particular unit so successful, he said, they replied that the unit had increased its time at home station to 26 months, as opposed to the average time of 16 months for most other units.
“It doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to figure out that the key to this problem is to expand the time our soldiers spend at home,” Chiarelli said.
Additionally, the Army plans to add 417 behavioral health specialists to its rolls to mitigate mental health issues associated with increasing deployments and a growing operations tempo. The introduction of online mental health diagnostic and treatment tools for soldiers and their families is another key to helping soldiers cope with the demands being placed upon them, he added.
The general said he’d like to bring Tricare military health plan coverage for soldiers in the National Guard and Army Reserve more in line with their active-duty counterparts.
“We have a responsibility to provide the same level of health care to National Guard soldiers that we provide to the active duty,” Chiarelli said, noting that more than 700,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers have been called to active duty since 2001.
“It really is one team, one fight,” he said. “But unfortunately, I think the challenges we are facing as a force are going to get harder before they get easier as we continue to adjust to this new strategic environment.”
Finally, Chiarelli highlighted the effort in Afghanistan, where an emphasis on agribusiness is helping to redirect the Afghan focus toward legitimate crops that benefit the entire population instead of the opium poppy trade, which finances insurgent groups. The effort of National Guard members, who are helping to redevelop the country’s essential farming practices lost to years of conflict, is a true success story, he said.
“Today, National Guardsmen from agriculture states in middle America are deploying to Afghanistan to advise the Afghan people on modern farming techniques and business practices,” the general said. He cited innovative irrigation techniques, grain storage facilities, livestock management and “green” power using solar technology as some of the tools that will bring Afghans toward independence and self-assurance.
“We’re helping Afghanistan rebuild their economy, and this is absolutely critical to our success there,” Chiarelli said. “These farmer-soldiers represent the strategic tip of the spear.”
But this critical mission is not funded in the National Guard by design, the general cautioned. Rather, these missions are conducted and funded by National Guard teams “out of hyde” due to new requirements.
“This new requirement has undoubtedly contributed to the growing strain on our forces,” he said. “No doubt, there are tough days ahead, and it’ll require a total team effort by our active-duty and Reserve and National Guard components to make it happen.”
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy serves in the National Guard Bureau.)