FORT BLISS - Campaign politicking aside, President Obama’s visit here Friday was about casting a spotlight on the increasingly deadly double-enemy of American soldiers: mental illness and suicide.
Obama announced an executive order to expand mental health services and suicide prevention resources for veterans and military families. Troops at Fort Bliss, one of the largest Army bases in the U.S. and home to the storied 1st Armored Division, told ABC News that they can certainly use them.
“Suicide in the Army is obviously a huge concern when you’re losing as many soldiers to suicide as you might be to the enemy,” said 2nd Lt. John Bockman, a medevac pilot. “We talk about conserving the fighting force. You have to start with your own unit and doing what you can to protect them.”
In July, the Pentagon reported 26 active-duty Army soldiers took their own lives, up from 12 in June. So far this year, there have been at least 116 Army suicides – a pace poised to easily eclipse the total 167 soldiers who killed themselves in 2011.
“The issue needs attention and all the help that we can get for it,” said Spc. J. Perez. “I did have some friends who had troubling times but we did pick them back up, we helped them out.”
Maj. Margie Brown said the Army is conducting rigorous mental health training throughout the ranks and instructing officers how to identify and treat those who need it most.
“Now our soldiers are coming back and as commanders,” she said. “We’re trained to realize that if there’s mental issues, behavior issues or physical issues that we send them to the doctor to get that care.”
Obama’s order initiates new suicide-prevention initiatives to be launched through the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
But several soldiers told ABC News that what they believe will ultimately matter most are conversations among friends about how to maintain mental health.
Master Sgt. William O’Kelly said he likes to use a metaphor when coaching struggling comrades: “We have the ‘Old Ironsides’ unit here, and their motto is ‘Iron Soldiers,’” he said pointing to a large triangular insignia posted inside a hangar. “That’s true. But we also have to realize that sometimes iron soldiers like iron ships need to come into the harbor every now and then to get a few repairs.”
So what’s causing the recent rash of suicides in the ranks? In part, the emotional strains of two simultaneous wars lasting over a decade, speculated Bockman.
“It’s heartbreaking, it’s confusing. But ultimately, I think it has to come down to the long-term effect of these wars going into two generations now,” he said.