Army tackling service member suicide by turning to its soldiers

The Army is once again reaching out to its soldiers to solve tough social issues within the ranks; this time it’s focusing on suicide.

The Army’s 18th Airborne Corps has been using a Shark Tank style competition to bring ideas from the rank-and-file up to the service’s leadership since last October. The last iteration of the program, named the Dragon Innovation Challenge, addressed sexual assault in the Army and brought in a large number of ways to address the issue.

Col. Joseph Buccino, Army 18th Airborne Corps innovation officer and spokesman, told Federal News Network that the most recent Dragon’s Lair session brought in more ideas then the previous three.

“Just about every soldier in the corps has been affected, somehow or another, by soldier suicide,” he said. “Either you’ve had a suicide in your unit, or you’ve had a suicide in adjacent units. That’s a tragic fact of the real problem that we’re grappling with. Even soldiers who did not submit ideas were talking about it on social media platforms. There were Reddit threads that had hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, not just from the 18th Airborne Corps, but across the Army, talking about this Dragon’s Lair.”

The military saw a rise in suicides in 2020, according to preliminary Defense Department data. A total of 377 active duty service members died by suicide in 2020. That number is up from 348 the previous year.

One of the ideas singled out to be potentially adopted by the corps came from Capt. Kristen Bell, which recommends soldiers get mandatory mental health checks every six months. Her idea was based on the June 2020 suicide of Sgt. Jack Chaffee in her unit.

“Right now we have mandatory checks for dental, mandatory eye exams, and routine hearing checks,” she told the Dragon Lair panel. “But there is no mandate for a soldier to get their emotional wellbeing checked by a behavioral health expert.”

Another idea came from Col. Will Bimson, a surgeon for the corps. He suggested creating a program to expand Army understanding and training within the spiritual domain. The program prioritizes spirituality in the same manner the Army emphasizes physical fitness, with in-depth techniques, subject matter expertise, training calendars, measuring tools and resources.

“Right now we don’t have any lexicon to talk about spiritual readiness, to advance our spiritual fitness,” Bimson told the panelists. His concept presents a checklist of practices to build spiritual resiliency.

Buccino said now that the ideas have been chosen, the corps needs to look into how they can be implemented.

“It’s in the staffing analysis process, it’s taking a look at what we can implement here without support from the Army headquarters,” he said. “For example, if we’re going to implement Kristen Bell’s idea of mandatory behavioral health checks, we’re likely going to find that we’re going to need more behavioral health specialists. We may need additional capacity at our facilities. It’s not really as easy as saying these were great ideas, let’s go implement them. These were really wonderful, thoughtful, well developed ideas. Now, let’s look at the impact to resources for structure facilities command, and then look at a glide path towards implementation.”

The corps is also implementing its previous Dragon Lair ideas. Buccino said the corps wants to have the previous suggestions implemented before starting the next challenge by the end of September.


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