SEATTLE — Since the first of July, five soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord have died in apparent suicides, part of an Army-wide upsurge in such deaths despite stepped-up prevention efforts.
Their memorial services came so close together that one bereaved mother, at a hotel in DuPont where the Army had her stay, encountered another couple struggling with the loss of their son.
“This is just too much in too short a time,” said Karrie Champion, whose 21-year-old son, Spc. Jonathon Gilbert, died July 28. “This is just not right.”
In recent weeks, commanders have met with soldiers stricken by grief over the passing of their comrades, and a recent directive at the base put a heightened focus on an Army-wide effort to reduce suicides.
The Army suicide rate has nearly doubled during a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has seen more-frequent overseas deployments for soldiers and a broader range of recruits.
During the past two years, the Army has embarked on wide-ranging efforts to reduce suicides. At Lewis-McChord, those efforts include repeated mental-health evaluations for soldiers. Despite these programs, the Army suicide rates remain high.
During the first seven months of 2011, the Army investigated 109 deaths throughout the service that may have been suicide, compared with 91 during the same time period in 2010. July’s suspected suicides hit a record.
“There should be no mistaking that this is a full-scale crisis that demands every resource we can muster. But we also need to be clear that this isn’t a problem with easy answers or overnight fixes,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who was briefed this week on suicides at Lewis-McChord.
Nine soldiers stationed at the base took their own lives in 2010. In the first seven months of this year, nine deaths are under investigation as suicides, including the five in July, according to Murray’s office.
Jonathon Gilbert was one of the men behind the July statistics.
In many respects, Gilbert’s life appeared headed in a good direction. In early July, he joined his mother on a cross-country drive from Lewis-McChord to North Carolina to marry his sweetheart.
“During the drive, he was joking and we had a great time,” Champion, his mother, recalls. “He was happy to be alive.”
When he returned to base, he had a promotion in his near future and, in a sign of respect within the unit, had been selected to serve as a gunner in the battalion commanders’ Stryker vehicle.
Yet Gilbert, who often held things in, also had stresses. He’d had a difficult year in Iraq and witnessed a Stryker rollover accident that killed two of his comrades.
“It was a bad scene, and those guys were in pieces, and Jonathon had to clean out the Stryker,” said Champion.
Gilbert, who was raised in California and Texas, also appeared disillusioned with military service. He repeatedly said he didn’t like military politics, and did not want to go with his unit on an overseas deployment in the months ahead, according to Champion.
Less than a month after his wedding, he attended a unit barbecue, where he seemed in good spirits.
But back at his apartment, after drinking, he got upset. He pulled out a hand gun, which a friend struggled to take away, and shot himself in what Lakewood police concluded was a suicide.
Champion is frustrated that the Army didn’t do more to help Gilbert. She believes the stigma against seeking out mental-health services remains strong.
And many soldiers still believe that seeking out such help is seen as a sign of weakness that could hurt their career.
“Jonathon was never one for talking with someone. But if he had been made to see someone — and trusted them — it might have had a totally different outcome,” said Champion.
In the aftermath of recent suicides, Army commanders at the base have been told to closely track monthly suicide-risk assessments conducted by leaders within each unit.
Squad leaders help rate suicide potential of the soldiers in their unit. Those assessments are reviewed by company and battalion commanders, who can then come up with possible ways to assist the soldier.
If a soldier appears to be at risk due to marital stress, for example, he or she may be referred to a marriage counselor.
“Units continue to conduct risk identification and intervention training, and address reasons people might hesitate to seek help and counseling,” said Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield, a base spokesman.
In addition to that effort, the Army medical corps has a “five-touch” program to try to reduce suicides.
Soldiers are screened before they are deployed overseas, and rated for suicide risk before they return from a war zone.
They are evaluated by a health provider upon their return, then must have a meeting with a counselor 90 to 180 days after that.
Finally, they are assessed for risk as part of their annual medical checkups, according to Dr. Daniel Christensen, a clinical psychologist at Madigan Army Medical Center.
The Army also has civilian counselors assigned to different units to help soldiers and their families cope with the stresses of military life.
“The dilemma that we face is there is a lot of focus on suicides when they occur. … In hindsight, looking back, what is hard to measure is the suicides that have been prevented,” said Christensen.
Ashley Joppa-Hagemann, of Yelm, is the widow of Staff Sgt. Jared Hagemann, 25, an Army Ranger whose body was found in late June at a training area at Lewis-McChord. His wife said it was a suicide, though the Army would not confirm that.
Joppa-Hagemann said her husband had deployed to combat zones eight times, including after briefly being admitted in 2009 to Madigan Army Medical Center, where she said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In his final months of life, she said her husband was increasingly desperate to get out of a scheduled ninth deployment this year.
“He actually had a gun to his head at least three times that last month talking about wanting to kill himself,” said Joppa-Hagemann. “They pretty much backed him into a corner.”
She said the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department, which responded to the suicide threats, said they would contact her husband’s command.
The Army Rangers have yet to schedule a memorial service for her husband. She said she was told that was due to concerns that the service might generate media coverage.
Master Sgt. Eric Hendrix, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command that includes the Rangers, said it is unclear what caused Hagemann’s death and declined to comment on memorial-service plans.
“I know that she (Joppa-Hagemann) is in a lot of pain, and the Army is making a concerted effort to make sure that she is taken care of,” said Hendrix.