FAIRBANKS—A team of medical experts will be sent to Fort Wainwright to study suicide in response to a perception that there has been a recent spike in suicides at the Army post.
The team is coming at the request Rep. Don Young and U.S. Army Alaska commander Maj. Gen. Mark O'Neil. Young wrote a letter on the subject last week to U.S. Army Medical Command.
U.S. Army Alaska spokesman Lt. Col. Martyn Crighton said he believes this is the first time this type of investigation is being conducted in Alaska. He said the timing of the investigation has not yet been announced but that soldiers at Fort Wainwright have begun preparing for it.
The exact number of recent suicides at Fort Wainwright is fluid because several deaths remain under investigation.
Since May 2018 two deaths of Fort Wainwright soldiers have been determined to be suicides, Crighton said. There were four other deaths of Fort Wainwright soldiers in the same time period. The Army's Criminal Investigation Command is investigating those deaths.
Two confirmed suicides in this time period is not unusual among Alaskans and Army soldiers — both populations have high rates of suicide compared with national averages, Crighton said. Even this number of suicides is not acceptable, he said.
"The overall goal is to get that number down to zero. Despite the fact that is not necessarily achievable, that's certainly what you want to continue to strive for. You're always looking to reduce that risk," he said.
U.S. Army Alaska didn't immediately have statistics available Friday related to past rates of suicide at Fort Wainwright.
In an emailed statement, Zack Brown, a spokesman for Young, mentioned the deaths that remain under investigation.
"If these deaths are officially ruled as suicides, Congressman Young hopes the U.S. Army can help identify a path forward to improve the mental health and overall well-being of active duty military at Fort Wainwright," Brown said.
"It should be noted, however, that it is premature to draw conclusions from what the investigation may or may not find," he said. "Congressman Young respects the investigation process and will follow the facts wherever they lead without interfering or directing the investigation."
Brown said U.S. Sen. Dan. Sullivan is joining Young in pursuit of the issue.
The investigation into suicide risks at Fort Wainwright is known as an epidemiological consult, or EPICON. The EPICON will also study subjects tangential to suicide such as drug and alcohol use.
"It's not centered on suicide only. It's going to look more holistically at ways and means for reducing and persuading people not to conduct risky behaviors," Crighton said. "We're looking forward to having the EPICON team up here at Fort Wainwright and learning and improving what is already a world-class installation."
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
Contact Outdoors Editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors