JBLM officials right to focus on mental health, suicide

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Colonel Owen Ray has been charged with a domestic violence incident involving his wife and children in their home.

Colonel Owen Ray has been charged with a domestic violence incident involving his wife and children in their home.

U.S. military

The words are jarring, especially given their source.

Lewis McCord, a former high-ranking official at Joint Base Lewis McCord, wrote about his mental struggles, the army’s “warrior” culture and the casualties of the war. He argues that things need to change.

“Behind the public facade I was so protective of, there was a rubbish fire of mental, emotional and physical decline and a struggling family,” 1st Corps Chief of Staff Colonel Owen Ray wrote in an op-ed published by The Cipher Brief last month. “I was suffering from complete mental exhaustion from the cumulative effect of unaddressed mental and physical health issues, operational and functional stress across a career in the[Special Operations Forces]including eight deployments. I was consumed by war in me and completely unaware of my own decline.”

It’s a scary admission given what happens next. On December 27, 2020 – the night Roy remembers in his writings – Green Beret held a gun to his head while locked up in an hours-long standoff with police at his family home in DuPont. According to the Pierce County District Attorney’s Office, Ray threatened to kill after he aimed the gun at his wife and kicked her in the face and chest in front of their children. Today, he awaits trial on charges stemming from the terrifying ordeal.

In an opinion piece Ray – who was discharged and honorably retired “instead of disqualification” earlier this year – says the events of December 27 changed his life forever. As he wrote online, he also believes the military urgently needs to “improve mental health awareness and foster a climate and culture in which service members feel they can seek help.”

“In the aftermath of that terrible night, I was distraught and disoriented and struggled to understand what, why and how this happened. I was criminally charged (and still facing trial), slandered by the media and lost my freedom, my career, and worst of all, my family. Months later, after extensive treatment Inpatient, I was diagnosed with acute and chronic PTSD, depression, insomnia, and TBI,” Ray writes.

He continues, “Reducing shame and hopelessness is critical to[efforts]to save lives, and we cannot continue to make the wrong choice between health and a job or a job.”

For the residents of South Sound and the thousands of military service members in the area, it can be difficult to reconcile Ray’s words. It is one thing to understand and empathize with the challenges and struggles faced by those who have bravely served our country. It is quite another to see Ray – whose rank and position in command in the military have given him a platform to address some of the same issues he now seeks to highlight – as a victim.

But here’s the thing: No matter what you think of Ray or his alleged crimes, the issues he describes in his article—including the need to address military mental health, reduce stigma, and rethink warrior culture—demand our attention.

The stakes are simply too high, and we know all too well what can happen when warning signals are ignored.

Last month, the Biden administration called suicide among service members, veterans and their family members a “public health and national security crisis” and with good reason. The White House noted that, “Since 2010, more than 65,000 veterans have died by suicide — more than the total number of combat deaths during the Vietnam War and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.” The Costs of War Project at Brown University recently announced a similar troubling finding: Since 9/11, just over 7,000 soldiers have died during military operations. More than 30,000 active duty and veterans who served during those same wars died by suicide during that time.

As recently as 2018, 17 veterans died daily by suicide, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nationally, the Biden administration has announced a list of operational goals and actions aimed at curbing these tragedies.

Here at home, efforts to address this crisis begin in a place many Pierce and Thurston County residents know well: Common Base Lewis McCord.

Last week, a panel of JBLM military experts – including Colonel Christopher Perry, Madigan’s chief medical officer – met with the News Tribune to discuss what is being done. In addition to the holistic health, fitness and fitness programs available at the base, Berry said the Madigan Behavioral Health Department has more than 200 employees, and these medical professionals actively treat every day people who need help.

Berry previously served as chief of Behavioral Health in Madigan, and said he’s seen “tremendous progress” in the way the military deals with mental health issues over the past decade. In part, he credits new and existing programs at JBLM — such as the expanded use of family life counselors, a suicide prevention hotline, and efforts to increase the number of clinics on base.

“The main takeaway, after running the behavioral health department, is that our 200 employees—the doctors in that group—have pretty much full schedules every day,” Berry said. “We don’t have unused appointments, which…tells me we did cross the corner regarding stigma issues, because our soldiers get our patronage.”

In response to a direct question about suicide, Perry said the increase in the military is linked to the increase seen in the general population, a point of contention among military leaders and researchers. But no matter how you analyze the statistics, Perry acknowledged that it was a problem the Army had to solve.

Perry noted that the Department of Veterans Affairs plays a large role once military personnel leave, and Perry said one of the biggest challenges for active duty members is figuring out who needs help.

“We look at our statistics every year, and we know we’re doing a pretty good job once we identify someone who is at risk of being admitted for treatment,” Berry said. The problem is identifying these people. … When suicide is rare, it is difficult.”

Although the task is difficult, it pales in comparison to the alternative. According to the Department of Defense, from 2015 to 2020, the suicide rate for active duty personnel increased by more than 40%, going from 20.3 to 28.7 suicides per 100,000 personnel.

A year ago, Ray narrowly avoided becoming another statistic in this national crisis. Today, it’s focused on “reconciling my life with my responsibility and also my responsibility to recover and live better for my family and friends,” he wrote.

Whether or not you think Ray deserves sympathy, this is an opportunity many active veterans and veterans should have.

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