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Soldier suicides: Causes studied in attempt to prevent future tragedies

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Lt. Col. Andrew Poznick

By all outward appearances, Col. Andrew Poznick was a man with success written all over his future.

He was a successful combat commander who led 1st Cavalry Division soldiers in Iraq. He had just been promoted to the rank of colonel. And he was preparing to join the faculty of the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

On March 20, 2016, he took his own life.

He wasn’t young. He wasn’t new to the Army. He wasn’t under financial duress, and he had left Fort Hood only a few weeks earlier.

But like at least 13 other soldiers on Fort Hood in 2016 — 13 confirmed and four pending confirmation — he chose suicide as a way to end his personal pain.

The soldiers lost to suicide this year on Fort Hood had little in common. About half had deployed to combat before, the other half had not. The youngest was 20 years old; the eldest 45. They were Americans of African, European and Hispanic heritage.

Some were junior enlisted, some were noncommissioned officers and some were officers.

Their names: Staff Sgt. Devin Lee Schuette; Maj. Troy Donn Wayman; Staff Sgt. Brian Michael Reed; Staff Sgt. Steven Daniel Lewis; Sgt. John Andrew Stobbe; Sgt. Marcus Lamarr Nelson Sr.; Spc. Bernardino Guevara Jr.; Sgt. Duane Cass Shaw III; Spc. Alexander Michael Johnson; Spc. Dion Shannon Servant; Spc. Bradley Michael Acker; Spc. Korey Deonte James; and Pvt. Wanya Bruns. Four other deaths are still under investigation by the Army as possible suicides.

The soldiers had one thing in common — something was bothering them so much that suicide seemed the only way out.

The military, especially the Army, has a higher rate of suicide than the equivalent civilian population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Dr. Michael Schoenbaum, the institute researcher responsible for the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers, has been studying the causes of soldier suicides for more than a decade and has watched the numbers rise since 2004.

“In the Army, race doesn’t actually matter as an indicator of who is more likely to attempt suicide, but age and sex does,” Schoenbaum said. “When adjusted for age and sex between ages 18-29, the Army was half the rate of a similar civilian demographic in 2004.

“By 2009, it was the same rate. The Army suicide rate rose while the civilian sector stayed the same, meaning the Army rate had doubled. By the end of 2012, which was the highest Army suicide rate, it was 50 percent higher than the civilian equivalent.”

Maj. Troy Wayman’s obituary photo in the Daily Herald on Jan. 25, 2016, looked familiar. The reason? Wayman’s photo had run in the paper in February 2014. He was smiling and playing with his dog at the annual Military Appreciation Fish Fry in Gatesville. What happened to him in those two years? What happened to the other soldiers who committed suicide?

There are some commonalities with the civilian population when it comes to suicide, said Sharon Sutton, Fort Hood suicide prevention program manager.

“When I say ‘commonalities,’ there’s usually some type of partner/relational or occupational stressor,” Sutton said. “There is a possibility of some type of substance use or misuse and (there is) access to weapons. The No. 1 way people in the military die by suicide is through a weapon: a handgun.”

Wayman died from an apparent gunshot wound at his residence in Nolanville. In at least four of the 13 confirmed suicides, use of a gun was reported. One of those, Spc. Bernardino Guevara Jr., left behind his parents, two grandparents and 11 brothers and sisters.

For Poznick, who also used a gun, work stressors led to marital problems. While deployed to Iraq, Poznick was responsible for drawing up battle plan operations for his soldiers to take the fight to the enemy, said Col. John Woodward, a longtime friend of Poznick and commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

“Andy was having problems with the fact that combat plans he had made got soldiers killed. They were good plans, the battles were won, but soldiers’ lives were lost in the process, and he could never forgive himself for that,” Woodward said. “I think that’s what eventually caused the problems in his marriage, and what I believe eventually led him to take his own life.”

It is experiences like Poznick’s that separate military personnel from civilians. Schoenbaum said it would be “nonsense” to compare the Army with the civilian population because of the unique nature of the military.

“The obvious reason for the rate to increase in the last 10 years has been the fact the Army is fighting multiple wars and sending soldiers on multiple deployments — the ‘War is Hell’ hypothesis,” he said. “When you send them off to war, bad things happen to them. Suicides go up during and right after deployments.”

The studies found that the rate of those who never deployed went up the same as those who did, however. The simple explanation that deployments drive the suicide rate, Schoenbaum said, is just not adequate and doesn’t explain the 50/50 pattern of suicides among deployed/nondeployed soldiers in the Army.

“My hypothesis is the fact that Army life since 9/11 has been engaged in two prolonged wars, with periods of high operational tempos,” he said. “The demands society has placed on the Army since 9/11 have stressed the whole Army community, so it’s related to the wars and mission requirements. And that’s not just those sent downrange — it’s all soldiers.”

New nine-month rotations to places such as South Korea have also played a factor. Diana Jasso (Shaw) lost her husband, Sgt. Duane Cass Shaw III, shortly after the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team returned from the first Korea rotation.

It wasn’t Shaw’s first time in Korea, and he had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The most recent deployment to Korea was the one he came back different from. You would think it would be the combat deployments, but it wasn’t,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t understand why this would be the deployment to change him.”

Shaw was a happy person who loved the five children the two had between them and from prior marriages, Jasso said. However, after he returned from Korea, the money and marital issues became too much and the two decided to part ways after marriage counseling failed.

“If you knew him, there was nothing to say he would do something like that. It took everyone by surprise,” she said. “I knew him, and I never thought he could do something like that. (The marital issues) couldn’t have been the only thing that made him want to do that. Things could have been a whole lot worse, so I just don’t understand why.”

In an effort to decrease suicides and help surviving families, Fort Hood’s suicide prevention program offers training for not only soldiers and small-unit leadership, but family members as well, Sutton said.

“They will often see things way before a battle buddy or leadership will, so we need to make sure our family members know what suicide can look like or sound like,” she said. “Give them a certain skill set so they can know how to report it when they see it in their soldier.”

Sutton said it also is important for all levels of leadership to know their subordinates well enough to spot changes in behavior that could signal a potential suicide.

“We can’t just limit this to our junior soldiers. It could happen to an NCO, or to an officer — anyone can be at risk,” Sutton said. “We have to be receptive to that. When we are, we start paying attention to everyone and understand those risk factors.”

The key thing to look for is a change in behavior, she said. It could be a person is not sleeping, eating or taking care of himself or herself the way he or she normally would.

Staff Sgt. Steven Lewis, for example, was described in his obituary as someone who took great joy in helping and teaching others, such as teaching his stepdaughter how to play strategic board games and how to be an excellent marksman on the range. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of world and military history, a sharp wit and a quick sense of humor.

What life changes the former sailor-turned-soldier was going through is unknown.

“But the key is, it’s a change,” Sutton said.” They could be eating a lot, could be they’re sleeping a lot, reckless behavior, excessive spending. ... It’s not a list of things — it could be anything.”

The loss of Poznick personalized the outcome a suicide has for those he left behind, Woodward said.

“When Andy killed himself, a couple of weeks after I took command, I met with the different groups of soldiers,” Woodward said. “I shared the story with them, because it was still so real and fresh. My message to them was that if you need help, then get it. I wanted to make sure they understood that I do not want anyone in this command to think that I thought any less of them if they wanted to get help.”

The biggest challenge Jasso faced after Shaw died was finding a way for the children to understand that he wouldn’t be coming home anymore.

“The Army does an outstanding job in providing counseling, but the little ones know he’s gone — but they don’t really know he’s gone,” she said. “Because of deployments, I can say, ‘He’s gone,’ and they’re like, ‘OK, for how long?’ The biggest thing is figuring out how to explain to the kids that he’s not coming back.”

AT A GLANCE

Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Servicemembers

The Army STARRS study adjusted the U.S. general population suicide rate to match the distribution of age and sex of the active duty Army to come up with its numbers, according to Dr. Michael Schoenbaum of the National Institute of Mental Health.

In 2004, the suicide rate for the active duty Army was about 10 suicides per 100,000 people serving on active duty. The general population was about 19 suicides per 100,000 people.

Over the next decade, the suicide rate for the active-duty Army rose each year while the suicide rate for the corresponding general population — adjusted to reflect the distribution of age and sex of the active duty Army — remained the same.

For 2008, the suicide rates for the active-duty Army and the corresponding general population, respectively, were both 19 per 100,000

Based on STARRS’ calculations, the active duty Army suicide rate continued to rise through the end of 2012. For 2012, the suicide rate for the active-duty Army was 31 per 100,000, while the general population suicide rate was 21 per 100,000. Since 2012, the Army suicide rate declined, but remained above 25 per 100,000 through 2015. For the corresponding general population, the suicide rate was about 21 per 100,000 in both 2013 and 2014.

Source: Staff report

Need help?

Military One Source

800-342-9647

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

800-273-8255

Central Counties Services (Temple)

800-888-4036

Fort Hood Army Substance Abuse Program (Suicide Prevention)

254-287-7575 or 254-287-5245

dbryant@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7554

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