‘Changing the culture’ helps Fort Bliss lower suicide rate

FORT BLISS — Soldier suicides at Fort Bliss in New Mexico are on the decline, bucking an Army-wide trend.

On Monday, Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commander for Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division, announced that the installation has the lowest suicide rate in the Army per thousand soldiers.

Fort Bliss had a 0.19 suicide rate per 1,000 soldiers last year, Pittard said. That translates to five suicides — four confirmed and one still under investigation.

Fort Bliss has seen about a 30 percent decline from the previous year when the installation had seven suicides, Pittard said.

The Army as a whole saw a 12 to 13 percent increase in suicides in the past year, he added. The Army suffered 247 suicides in 2012, with 78 additional possible suicides currently under investigation, according to a news release from Fort Bliss.

“We’re not going to cross the goal line and give everyone a high five,” Pittard said during a news conference Monday at Fort Bliss headquarters. “We won’t be happy until it is zero.”

Fort Bliss’ success in reducing suicides has resulted from the “collective efforts of many people in the past year,” Pittard said.

This is part of a larger campaign called No Preventable Soldier Deaths. Fort Bliss went 120 straight days without a preventable soldier death — no suicides, overdoses or fatal vehicle accidents — from September 2011 through early January 2012.

A key component has been “changing the culture,” making it a sign of strength for soldiers to seek help and erasing any stigmas, Pittard said.

“Everyone has their dark, bad days,” he said.

Pittard singled out several key initiatives in helping to prevent suicides.

All incoming soldiers at Fort Bliss now receive Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. This is a two-day program where they can learn the danger signs of when fellow soldiers may be having problems, Pittard said.

The goal is to have 90 percent of all Fort Bliss soldiers go through A.S.I.S.T. by 2015, Pittard said. The Wellness Fusion Campus, meanwhile, spearheads and coordinates suicide prevention, risk reduction and resiliency efforts at Fort Bliss, said its director, Lt. Col. Leonard Gruppo.

The sprawling campus on West Fort Bliss helps to “reduce redundancy, increase efficiency and create synergy” among different programs designed to help soldiers and their families, Gruppo said.

William Beaumont Army Medical Center is also a key partner. The military hospital in Central El Paso has “embedded” behavioral health teams in brigade-size units at Fort Bliss. The purpose is to bring these health-care professionals closer to where soldiers work, identify potential problems earlier and get them help as soon as possible, said Col. Michael Heimall, commander at Beaumont.

“We have a lot of good news and unique things going on at Fort Bliss,” Heimall said.

Another of these innovative features is that every preventable soldier death is studied to see if any lessons can be learned, Heimall said.

David Burge may be reached at dburge@elpasotimes.com; (915) 546-6126. Follow him on Twitter @dburge1962.

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