Army Alaska commander pushes to normalize mental health care amid a string of soldier suicides

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Aerial view of Ft. Wainwright. (U.S. Army photo)

The U.S. Army has confirmed that 11 Alaska-based soldiers died by suicide in 2021. Six of the soldiers were based at Ft. Wainwright, and five were at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The deaths of another six Alaska soldiers, five of whom were based Ft. Wainwright, are under investigation.

That compares to seven deaths by suicide in 2020 and eight in 2019.

Maj. Gen. Brian Eifler, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, said suicide prevention is his number one priority.

“We’ve got a lot of things going on in the world right now, a lot of things that we’ve got to pay attention to, but this is what’s hurting our soldiers, so we’ve got to figure it out,” he told reporters on Friday.

Ft. Wainwright has one of the highest suicide rates among U.S. Army posts. And while military suicides have been climbing nationwide in recent years, Eifler said Alaska’s extreme environment can magnify mental health challenges.

“So maybe a small problem in the Lower 48 would be big problem here,” he said.

Eifler reflected on a 2019 Ft. Wainwright suicide study that gave rise to mental health and quality of life initiatives, including over $200 million in facility upgrades.

“Obviously and tragically we still have long road ahead of us,” he said.

Eifler focused on a list of suicide prevention measures, including a campaign to keep soldiers better connected.

“Leaders connected with the soldiers and soldiers connected with each other,” he said. “100% of our soldiers will get a wellness check from behavioral health or the military family life counselor.”

Eifler said many of the deaths happen during a soldier’s first year in the state. He highlighted a new Army climate that encourages reaching out.

“Every week we have people coming forward and saying, ‘Hey, first sergeant, I’m really struggling here, and here’s my weapon, take my weapon away from me. I need some help,’” he said.

Eifler said the goal is to normalize mental health care within the ranks. He also pointed to a new initiative to identify soldiers who are a good fit for Alaska and to bring and keep them here.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.