U.S. Army Alaska has started to address the rate of soldier suicides at Fort Wainwright.
Following the completion of an epidemiological consultation report, referred to as an EPICON, Army Alaska leaders acknowledged that Fort Wainwright’s suicide rate is higher than that of some other military installations in Alaska and requires attention. The report, which has not been released to the Daily News-Miner in full because public relations staff say they are not authorized to do so, includes a list of findings and an extensive series of recommendations for tackling the issue.
Army Alaska leaders said they have begun implementing some of the report’s recommendations.
“It (the rate of suicides) is higher than what we have at JBER. We know that for a fact,” said Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commander of Army Alaska. JBER is Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
According to an executive summary of the report, which covers January 2014 through March 2019, 11 confirmed suicides of soldiers at Fort Wainwright have been identified. Five of those occurred between May 2018 and March 2019.
The 11 suicides don’t include a number of deaths of soldiers at Fort Wainwright that are still under investigation. According to information provided by Fort Wainwright, nine soldiers assigned to Fort Wainwright have died so far in 2019. Of those, one was from a vehicle accident; the other eight remain under investigation.
The executive summary of the epidemiological consultation report states, “Due to the number of deaths, statistical comparisons to other U.S. installations and the U.S. population or the determination of whether there was a statistically significant increase in death by suicide at FWA was not possible.”
The report did, however, state that a “perceived increase in suicides at Fort Wainwright” was what prompted the report.
According to Andrysiak, the report was requested by his predecessor, Maj. Gen. Mark O’Neil, and the Army began implementing changes to Fort Wainwright before that request was made. He also acknowledged a “spike” in the suicide rate, though he did not go into detail.
“Gen. Brown was out here, well over a year ago, and was concerned about the infrastructure here and the lack of spending over time, and he instituted this thing called the Alaska Infrastructure Reinvestment Initiative,” Andrysiak said. “That aspect of it was started well before this spiked.”
Many factors, no clear answer
The report involved a variety of information gathering methods, including focus groups, interviews, administrative medical claims analyses, and online surveys.
The executive summary of the Army report states that more than 4,000 soldiers were surveyed. A Fairbanks North Star Borough Community socioeconomic review published this summer shows a little over 6,600 active-duty soldiers assigned to Fort Wainwright.
The report’s findings listed in the summary include the fact that soldiers who died by suicide had “indications of multiple risk factors” including pain, sleep, and relationship issues. Additionally, soldiers identified isolation, stigma, limited resources, poor coping skills, alcohol use, and poor quality of life at Fort Wainwright as factors they perceived as contributing to suicidal behavior.
While the executive summary notes various contributing factors, it also states that the findings “have not pinpointed definitive reasons for why soldiers die by suicide.”
In an interview with news reporters, however, Andrysiak repeated several times that “isolation” is likely why Fort Wainwright is seeing more suicides.
“What we’ve identified is that when some soldiers come up here, what’s different about Alaska — especially here in Fairbanks, in the Interior — is this idea of isolation,” he said. “What we want to try to do is get out in the narrative that there’s a lot of great things that are going on and it’s a great place to live.”
Andrysiak notes that most of the contributing factors fall under the umbrella term “quality of life.” He said that things like the financial strain of moving to Fairbanks and the living conditions in the barracks can negatively impact a soldier’s quality of life. Issues like these are what Army Alaska is trying to mitigate.
Fighting the isolation
Part of Army Alaska’s response to the report’s findings has been to bring in a quality of life task force, which Andrysiak said was at Fort Wainwright during October. This task force, and Army Alaska leaders, are setting up a number of initiatives, in order to improve quality of life at Fort Wainwright.
“Things have already happened,” Andrysiak said. “Whether it’s transportation around the installations, investment in the dining facilities, more cooks in the dining facilities, getting TV and Wi-Fi up in there — all that stuff is moving along.”
Col. Christopher Ruga, Army Garrison Alaska Commander, added during the Nov. 5 interview with several local reporters that several of the barracks are under renovation and that more infrastructure improvement is coming.
“Just last week we were informed that three of our barracks are going to receive restoration and maintenance large-scale funding for this next year,” he said. “So the next step is, once the funds have been appropriated and everything gets locked in, we’ll be able to get the timeline set on those.”
Ruga added that they are working on getting funding for things like blackout curtains and lightboxes — also known as “happy lights” — for those affected by Fairbanks’ varied seasons.
Colonel Jeremy Johnson, Army Alaska Command Surgeon, explained that the aim is to make lightboxes available for rent to soldiers and families.
“We just gotta get the education piece and we need to get the funding,” he said. “But there’s certainly a population that has seasonal affective disorder, and we’d like to treat that and help them with that problem.”
Andrysiak pointed out that, while short-term recommendations are being implemented, the report included findings that are trickier to address and recommendations that will take much longer to implement.
“Some of those require some external support and so those take a little time — and the reality is, some of the challenges that we have are going to take years to deliver,” he said.
A 'national issue’
Other findings from the report note that soldiers and family members felt “community activities and on-post resources to be limited” and that many soldiers reported a “work-life imbalance” that put a strain on family relationships. Some soldiers also “described leaders as uncaring, displaying favoritism, and overworking their Soldiers.”
Among the findings are that soldiers saw Fort Wainwright’s behavioral health services as “understaffed, overworked, and inadequate.”
“BH personnel received sufficient command support but also reported concerns about staffing due to problems attracting and retaining personnel,” the report states.
This is something that Army Alaska will attempt to address, but the question of funding — given the depth and breadth of the list of recommended actions — is lingering.
“You’re in a funding-constrained environment,” Andrysiak said. “What you’re constantly looking at is the mission side vs. the base operations side.”
Andrysiak, however, went on to claim that the chief of staff of the Army has verbally offered his support for providing the resources needed to help address the issue.
“Obviously that always doesn’t imply that that is a blank check,” he said, adding “The cost of many of these things I can’t reveal right now, because they’re still being worked through.”
Andrysiak maintained that quality of life at Fort Wainwright is a priority.
“The message that needs to be really clear is everybody’s committed to this,” he said.
“It’s a national issue. And when you look at U.S. Army Alaska, the incidences are higher here, so the priority for U.S. Army Alaska is getting after some of the challenges we have in Fairbanks.”
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.