Military commanders take on stigma regarding suicides

No bugler played taps for Staff Sgt. Anthony S. Schmachtenberger.

There was no gun salute, no fallen soldier display of boots, rifle and helmet -- the traditional Army honors for a lost comrade. When a memorial service was held in the Fort Richardson, Alaska chapel for Schmachtenberger last August, there was only a photograph of the soldier in uniform, propped on an easel.

Schmachtenberger was one of three Fort Richardson soldiers to kill themselves in 2009, the local manifestation of a growing epidemic of suicides among America's battle-stressed military.

But the failure of the commanders of his own artillery battalion to give him final military honors may have been symptomatic of another aspect of the epidemic: the stigma put on soldiers who show signs of mental stress.

"It sends the wrong message," Maj. Gen. William Troy, the commander of the Army in Alaska, said in a recent interview.

"When you do a memorial service in a different way (for a suicide victim), I think that you're adding to the stigmatization of a soldier who has a behavioral health problem. You don't mean to, but what you're doing is, you're making it look like it's his fault," Troy said. "We should be memorializing his service to the nation, his service in combat. He's a volunteer, a member of a free nation who came and joined our ranks to defend this country and that's what we should be memorializing, not passing judgment on the manner of his death."


Over the past year, the Army's top leaders have been increasingly emphasizing that the stigma must end if soldiers are to believe they can seek mental health therapy without fearing it will ruin their Army careers or bring personal ridicule. Pushing that message down through the ranks to battalion, company, platoon and squad leaders remains one of their big challenges, they say.

Changing that aspect of military culture is especially critical in Alaska now. The 4,500-troop 1-25th Stryker brigade returned late last summer from Iraq to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. It has just begun to rebuild for its next assignment.

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