Letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Obama Calls on Gates to Immediately Address High Army Suicide Rate
U.S. Senator Barack Obama today sent the following letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, calling on him to respond to the increasing rates of suicide and suicide attempts in the Armed Forces. Yesterday, the Army acknowledged that 115 service members had committed suicide in 2007, including 32 soldiers serving in Iraq last year, according to reports.
In the letter, Obama asks Gates what changes will be made to ensure service members are provided with mental health care in combat; if the number of mental health counselors will be increased; what training the Pentagon has provided medical professionals to identify those service members at risk of suicide; what support is provided to military families so they can recognize the risk factors of suicide; and what has the Pentagon done to reduce the stigma attached to mental health concerns so that service members are more likely to seek appropriate support.
The text of the letter is below:
Dear Secretary Gates:
I am writing to inquire as to what action the Department of Defense is taking to stem the disturbing increase in the number of suicides in our Armed Forces. As you know, the Army is experiencing the highest rates of suicide in 26 years, and the number of suicide attempts is also rising. There has also been an increase in the number of soldiers in theater who have killed themselves, including 32 soldiers serving in Iraq last year, according to reports.
These statistics are of great concern to me, as I am sure they are to you as well. We must do everything we can to ensure that our brave service members are provided the mental health services they need. I know the DoD has embarked on some mental health initiatives for our service members and the Congressionally-mandated Mental Health Advisory Team surveys have provided a good window into the mental health issues affecting our troops. These surveys have indicated that soldiers in Afghanistan are now exhibiting mental health stresses at the same rate as our soldiers in Iraq. These surveys also indicate a significant amount of strain on soldiers' families and spousal relationships. Despite the increased strains on our troops, reports indicate that the ratio of mental health counselors to soldiers in theater has dropped from 1 for every 387 soldiers in 2004 to 1 for every 734 soldiers last year. This downward trend is unacceptable, and does not put the best interests of these men and women first.
The Senate recently passed the Supplemental Appropriations bill, and I ask that you dedicate some portion of those funds to securing the mental health treatment and care our service members deserve, both in theater and here at home, as soon as possible.
I also ask that you provide me with answers to the following questions:
1. What changes will you make to provide our soldiers in theater with real access to mental health care? Will you increase the number of mental health counselors in theater?
2. What training has the Pentagon provided our medical professionals in theater to recognize soldiers who might be at risk of committing suicide?
3. What assistance are you providing families here at home to recognize the risk factors for suicide, so that they may help our service members get the assistance they need?
4. What programs has the Pentagon implemented to help reduce the stigma attached to mental health concerns so that service members are more likely to seek appropriate care?
The men and women in our Armed Services risk their lives every day for our security. We must show them that we understand the sacrifices they are making for us, and do everything we can to stand up for their health, their futures, and their families. The tragedy of suicide can be avoided, so it is our obligation to do what we must to prevent it. I look forward to your swift response.
United States Senator