Defense Department officials on Tuesday unveiled members of panel charged with studying suicide prevention and behavioral health programs across the services, and the nine military installations they’ll visit in coming months to evaluate what fixes need to be put in place.
The Suicide Prevention and Response Independent Review, mandated by Congress last year, will include experts in substance abuse, mental health services and lethal weapons safety, as well as a pair of retired military officers to provide insights into problems in the ranks.
The move comes after years of emphasis on suicide prevention and mental health assistance for servicemembers, but with little discernable impact on the overall problem.
The Defense Department saw a 16 percent increase in the number of suicides among troops in 2020, with 580 deaths total.
In announcing the new panel on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the group will provide a “public health approach to suicide prevention” for the department.
The panel will be led by Dr. Gayle Iwamasa, a clinical psychologist who currently works as a program director in the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.
Dr. Stephanie Gamble, deputy director of VA’s Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention, will also serve as a suicide prevention expert for the panel.
Craig Bryan, a behavioral health professor at Ohio State University, will serve as the panel’s expert on lethal weapons safety, a controversial topic give the political fighting on Capitol Hill over gun control.
But public health experts have noted that nearly 70 percent of veterans suicides annually are a result of firearms use, making the issue a key in prevention efforts.
Former Army Surgeon General Nadja West, former Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright and Carl Trost, a retired Navy chaplain, will serve as consultants for the board. Kathy Robertson, a clinical social worker whose husband and two sons all served in the military, will offer a military family perspective as another consultant.
Also on the panel are Rajeev Remchand, a longtime military mental health researcher, and Rebecca Blais, an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University. Jerry Reed, who previously worked as the suicide prevention lead at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, will serve as an additional consultant.
Site visits scheduled for the group include:
- Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in July;
- Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in August;
- Naval Air Station North Island, California; in August;
- North Carolina National Guard, in September;
- Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in September;
- Camp Humphreys, South Korea, in September;
- Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Fort Wainwright, and Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, in October.
The Alaska military bases are of particular interest because of a spate of suicides there in recent months. At least 11 soldiers stationed in Alaska died by suicide in 2021, with several more still under investigation.
An initial report is expected from the group in December, with a final draft due in February.
Troops of veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.