Security guards open a gate for motorist at the visitor entrance to Fort Lee, Va., on Aug. 25 after a female soldier with a gun turned the weapon on herself. (Steve Helber / AP)
Just six days before the start of Suicide Prevention Month in September, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paula Walker, 33, barricaded herself inside an office at Fort Lee, Virginia, and, in what military leaders later described as “upset and rage,” killed herself with a personal firearm.
The Aug. 25 death stands out for several reasons. First, female troops like Walker die by suicide at rates much lower than male service members; they tend not to use firearms; and, unlike more than half the service members who commit suicide each year, Walker had deployed to a combat zone, spending 15 months in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
Her death and others by military personnel this year show how difficult a challenge suicide is for the Defense Department, which is launching several initiatives in September as part of National Suicide Prevention Month.
“Suicide is complex and the trajectory toward death is as individual as the person,” Defense Suicide Prevention Office Director Jacqueline Garrick said in an interview Sept. 4.
Together with the Veterans Affairs Department, DoD is launching the “Power of 1” awareness campaign — a public service initiative based on the idea that it takes just one person asking a question, texting a friend in need or making a phone call to save a life.
In a DoD-wide message Sept. 2, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized the impact of simple intervention.
“These brave individuals shouldn’t be avoided or stigmatized. They need to be embraced. Whether you’re a service member, a veteran, a DoD civilian, or a friend or family member of someone who is, you have the power to make a difference,” Hagel said.
Garrick said statements conveyed in a nonjudgmental manner, such as, “I’m worried you might hurt yourself,” “You don’t seem yourself,” or “You seem to be taking risks,” accompanied by, “Let’s figure something out,” can help.
“It’s knowing how to ask the right questions without being afraid of the answers, and part of not being afraid is knowing where the resources are,” Garrick said.
Last November, DoD expanded its Vets4Warriors program, an around-the-clock call center that offers peer counseling and support, to active-duty, National Guard and reserve members, retirees and their families.
Staffed by veterans representing all service branches as well as a handful of family members, the toll-free line (1-855-838-8255) receives an average of about 1,500 calls a month, according to the Pentagon.
Garrick said the program not only gives those under stress someone to talk to, but the staff can help callers navigate the complexities of the mental health system as well as provide case management.
“When someone is really stressed, it’s hard to navigate. Our peers are really good at problem solving,” Garrick said.
For service members in emergencies, the Military Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255, is staffed by trained mental health specialists — many of whom also are veterans, according to VA.
The 24-hour phone service, online chat and text-messaging system, overseen by VA, has fielded more than 1.25 million calls since 2007 and is credited with nearly 40,000 lifesaving rescues, according to the department.
While DoD is ramping up its suicide prevention programs in September, officials say the department maintains a full-court press on the problem year-round with the goal of reducing a surge in suicides in the past 12 years.
In 2013, 259 active-duty personnel, 87 reservists and 133 Guard members died by suicide.
The suicide rate per 100,000 personnel in 2013 was 18.7 for the active component, 23.4 for the reserves and 28.9 for the Guard.
In comparison, the civilian rate, adjusted to similar demographics as those who serve, is 18.8 per 100,000.
“Getting help when you need it is not only a sign of strength, but it works,” Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, military deputy to the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a news release. “Having the confidence to seek help when you need it is important.”
Concerned over the frequency of suicide among young veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America made the subject its top priority this year.
IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff said the DoD figures underscore the scope of the problem and call attention to the broader issue, that troops and veterans — including those recently discharged — are dying by their own hands in significant numbers.
“We’re outraged, which is why we’ve asked the president to draft an executive order focused solely on military and veteran suicide,” Rieckhoff recently told Military Times.
A poll of IAVA members earlier this year found that 31 percent said they have thought about taking their own lives since joining the military and 40 percent have a friend who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and died by suicide.
First Sgt. Paula Walker’s brother Paul told the British paper MailOnline on Aug. 27 that his sister’s suicide “came out of nowhere.”
“I am devastated at the loss of my twin sister. This was totally unseen. ... You never know what’s going on in a person’s mind,” Paul Walker said, according to the paper.
And that, precisely, is the major challenge of preventing suicide, Garrick said.
In studying military suicide in the past several years, DoD has found the majority of those who take their own lives are young, white, enlisted men who have never deployed to a combat zone. About one-third told someone of their intent and nearly half had seen a doctor in the months before they died.
But often, those who die by suicide fit none of those descriptions.
“As much as I wish I could say there is a known portion of the population that dies by suicide, there are constant exceptions to the rules,” Garrick said. “Constant vigilance is needed.”