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A trio of influential lawmakers from both parties joined together to ask the Army to step up its efforts to stem the tide of suicide deaths occurring at the service’s bases in Alaska, they announced Wednesday in a letter to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.
Alaska’s two Republican senators, Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, signed the letter declaring “we are failing our service members,” alongside Rep. Jackie Spier, D-Calif., who chairs the House’s military personnel subcommittee.
Although the entire active duty Army experienced a historically high number of confirmed or suspected suicide deaths in 2021, Army Alaska’s 17 deaths among its approximately 11,000 soldiers represented a disproportionately high rate.
“Service members stationed in Alaska are under an outsized level of stress from several angles, including behavioral health specialist shortages, financial challenges, infrastructure and transportation limitations, and the adjustment to living in a remote location with extreme cold weather,” the members of Congress said.
The lawmakers called attention to “insufficient” behavioral health capacity at some Alaska installations — including 11 vacant mental health provider roles at the remote Fort Wainwright — and red tape restricting virtual appointments to providers in the Pacific region.
Another possible issue, the lawmakers say, “are relatively simple problems like widespread Vitamin D deficiency” that could be solved by better distribution of existing Army stocks of UV lights.
They also suggested the Army alleviate some of the financial pressures on troops in the region by “establishing a monthly special ‘Arctic Pay’ of $300 per month...[and] a special monthly allowance to offset the difference between the cost of an uncapped internet plan in Alaska and the average monthly internet cost in CONUS.”
Among the lawmakers’ other ideas to incentivize service in Alaska: permanent wear of the Arctic tab, follow-on assignment preference, shorter tours at Fort Wainwright and extra promotion points for enlisted troops.
Speier, Sullivan and Murkowski also want the service to create a plan for better screening and preparing troops for Alaska assignments. This could involve excluding soldiers with ongoing behavioral health treatment or those in their first enlistment who hail from warmer parts of the country, unless they volunteer.
The members of Congress asked that the Army develop formal plans to address their concerns while the Defense Department initiates a wider independent review of the military’s suicide prevention efforts.
Similar to the DoD’s independent review of sexual assault that resulted in sweeping changes to military-wide policies, the suicide commission will visit bases around the country to conduct surveys, focus groups and other work to evaluate the effectiveness of current prevention programs.
Three Alaska installations — including the Army’s Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson — are among the first round of sites that the commission will visit.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.