U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper said reducing suicides in the Army is a priority, and he and his staff are working to study and resolve problems leading to them.
After spending the day at Fort Riley speaking with soldiers and their families, Esper spoke with The Mercury Friday afternoon.
Esper said he’s asked leaders who study issues that can lead to suicide to take a closer look at the Army’s strategy to make sure they’re doing everything they can to prevent it. He also said it’s important to provide the proper tools and training for non-commissioned officers and are employing programs where leaders call upon soldiers to look out for one another and learn to identify warning signs of depression, stress or other factors.
Since July 2017, 12 Fort Riley soldiers have died in non-combat roles.
“We have to take a holistic approach to this,” Esper said. “The Army has put in a lot of resources into its medical community, its behavioral health system. We have it embedded in multiple echelons, so we’re doing everything we can, but we can do more. We have to do better.”
He said the problem is not a lack of resources, effort or understanding. While the Army conducts studies to better understand the problem, Esper said he has asked his leadership staff to play a more active role in being present for soldiers during off hours and on weekends.
Esper said one of the reasons he visited Fort Riley was to see its qualities, attributes and capability to house a new brigade. He said some of the factors the Army considers when making that decision are training space, training support, community support.
Fort Riley is still one of five bases in the running to house up to 4,000 soldiers in the 16th Armored Brigade Combat Team. The Army will decide later in the summer where the brigade will end up, Esper said. Other posts vying for the brigade are Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Steward, Georgia; and Fort Carson, Colorado, where it’s at now.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-KS, who spent the day with Esper, said his goal in congress is to highlight the qualities and capabilities Fort Riley has to offer.
“It is a goal as we increase the size of the Army that Fort Riley has an opportunity to benefit from that increase in troop strength that’s going to occur,” Moran said.