Military defense bill nears approval

A sign on Route 11 northbound welcomes people to the main entrance to Fort Drum. Watertown Daily Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, is calling for more help for military servicemen and women with mental health issues after three Fort Drum soldiers are believed to have died by suicide within a 48-hour-period.

Sen. Gillibrand’s push comes after three 10th Mountain Division soldiers lost their lives two weeks ago.

Saying “the military is in crisis,” she sent a letter to the Department of Defense on Thursday asking for details on the department’s actions to address marital stress and the mental health of service members and their families.

On Thursday, Sen. Gillibrand held a video press conference to address the rising rate of suicide in the military, stressing military suicides are a crisis in New York and across the country.

In response to the tragedies, she recently spoke to Gen. Milford H. Beagle, Jr., 10th Mountain Division Commander.

Sen. Gillibrand also brought up the subject to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

With the 10th Mountain Division the most deployed division in Afghanistan and Iraq, Sen. Gillibrand said families have told her about the stress that soldiers are experiencing after they helped with the evacuation of more than 100,000 Americans and allies from Afghanistan in August.

“It was like a full deployment compressed in a few short weeks,” she said.

About 270 Fort Drum soldiers recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan during the waning weeks of the war and the chaotic evacuation of the country.

She said two of the suspected suicides at Fort Drum involved marital or relationship issues. The the third involved a soldier who just returned from Afghanistan, but Fort Drum officials do not believe his deployment was directly involved in his death.

Sen. Gillibrand is renewing her push to pass the Brandon Act, bipartisan legislation named after Brandon Caserta, who was 21 when he died by suicide at Naval Station Norfolk in 2018. The Brandon Act would expand access to mental health care services for active-duty military personnel, including access to confidential mental health evaluation referrals without fear of retaliation.

She said the military must do more to remove the stigma when soldiers try to get help for mental health issues. They should not fear losing their job in the military, she said, adding the military needs to get them the help that allows them to return to duty.

A recent study conducted by the Cost of War Project shows that since 9/11, more than four times as many active-duty personnel and veterans have died by suicide when compared to the number of service members who have died in combat, she said during the press conference.

Today, the DOD released its annual report on suicide, showing that 580 service members died by suicide in 2020, an increase from 2019’s report of 498 service members.

“Over the last 10 years, the veteran suicide rate has doubled that of the civilian suicide rate,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “These aren’t just numbers, these are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. And as the recent tragedies at Fort Drum prove, no community is immune to this crisis. We owe it to these brave men and women to end the stigma on mental health and eliminate barriers that stand between our service members and veterans and access to mental health care.”

Currently, the DOD policy requires mental health professionals to report many cases of mental health concerns of service members to a commander. However, commanders are not required to provide opportunities for mental health treatment. This policy lacks accountability, can lead to mistrust and serves as a barrier to treatment, as many service members fear repercussions to their career, she said.

The Brandon Act would require the DOD to establish a standard phrase that service members may use to initiate mandatory and immediate treatment and would ensure confidentiality for service members seeking treatment. This confidential request would be designed to function like the restricted reporting system for victims of military sexual assault, so that service members can receive mental health treatment in confidence.

More than 45,000 veterans and active-duty service members have died by suicide over a six-year period from 2013 to 2019. According to the DOD’s reporting, suicide rates for active-duty service members and veterans continue to rise, and spiked to a five-year high in 2018.

In 2017, 136 veterans in New York died by suicide — one nearly every other day — and veterans die by suicide in New York at a much higher rate than the total state population. Additionally, between 2005 and 2017, the suicide rate more than doubled for New York veterans ages 18 to 34.

Sen. Gillibrand also called for improved support for soldiers and their families when they are reassigned from one post to another and for more help to veterans during transitions from military service to civilian life.

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