WASHINGTON - Suicide decimates not only families, but also military units, a senior Defense Department official said at the 2019 Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Conference in Nashville, Tenn.
James N. Stewart, performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, cited the death of an airman in a unit he once commanded in his remarks at the conference yesterday.
"It had a tremendous impact on the unit in every single way," he said. "Rather than focusing on the mission, what consumed us was how did we fail? How did we miss it? We thought we had the tools. We thought we had the training. How did this happen? How did we not pick up on the signs?"
Teamwork has always been a warfighting principle, and it's no different when it comes to combating suicides, he said. "One suicide is too many, let alone the alarming numbers we're seeing today," he added.
Executive orders issued last year and earlier this year direct the Defense Department and the services to collaborate with federal agencies such as the VA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, other federal agencies and even community partners, Stewart said, with the goal of providing seamless care during and beyond the transition of service members to civilian life.
Additionally, he said, the Defense Strategy for Suicide Prevention that was established in 2015 and the DOD's 2017 establishment of the Defense Suicide Prevention Program guide the department in strengthening programs and efforts and serve as the foundations for future improvements in critical areas.
One year before separation or retirement, Stewart said, all service members begin the transitioning process. The process includes completing a comprehensive, standardized and individual assessment and identifying and addressing gaps so DOD can improve health benefits and support, he explained.
The causes of suicide are complex, he acknowledged. "No two individuals have the same life experiences," Stewart said, noting that everyone has a role to play in caring for their teammates.
The way to do this begins with engaged leadership each and every day, he said. Often, he added, small steps save lives, and he encouraged people to recognize the warning signs and do something before it's too late.