Letter to Chairman Levin, Chairman McKeon, Ranking Member McCain, and Ranking Member Smith - Military Suicide

Letter

By:  Hank Johnson, Jr. John Kerry
Date: Dec. 12, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

Congressman Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), along with a bipartisan group of 34 senators and representatives, today penned a letter to the leadership of the Senate and House Armed Services committees requesting the inclusion of an amendment to help prevent tragic cases of suicide among members of the military in the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Bill (NDAA).

Rep. Johnson's language as passed by the House of Representatives would allow military commanding officers and health professionals to talk to service members about the firearms they own personally and encourage them to safely store those weapons in a military facility or with the use of a gunlock.

Johnson and Kerry urged their colleagues in conference committee to adopt the suicide prevention language in the final bill.

"This is not an attempt to limit gun rights or an individual's ability to own a firearm," said Rep. Johnson. "Prohibiting commanders and mental health professionals from helping soldiers defies common sense and dangerously interferes with our obligation to ensure the health, welfare, morale and well-being of the troops. Military suicide is a complex problem that demands a range of actions to address it. This common sense provision adds another tool to help prevent tragic deaths."

"We've come a long way since Vietnam in looking for and treating the invisible wounds left by months and years of combat, but we need to be even more vigilant about the signs that some in uniform are facing great difficulty. As of June, suicides were up 18% over the same period the year before -- that's a frightening figure but more importantly it needs to be a wakeup call," said Sen. Kerry. "Often it's the commanding officers who are in the best position to make a difference and to help save lives. We owe it to our brave men and women in uniform to do all we can to help them make safe and responsible decisions when they are struggling."

December 10, 2012

The Honorable Carl Levin The Honorable Buck McKeon
Chairman Chairman
Senate Armed Services Committee House Armed Services Committee

The Honorable John McCain The Honorable Adam Smith
Ranking Member Ranking Member
Senate Armed Services Committee House Armed Services Committee

Dear Chairman Levin, Chairman McKeon, Ranking Member McCain, and Ranking Member Smith,

We write today to ask you to address the issue of military suicides as you work in conference to finish the Fiscal Year 2013 National Defense Authorization Bill (NDAA). We are all aware of the pressures and stress our men and women in uniform have to undergo due to their incredible sacrifice for our country. Tragically this can sometimes lead to depression, and increasingly, suicide. Military commanders, our service men and women, and their families should be provided every resource and tool to try and prevent those in harm's way from taking their own lives. That is why we are asking you to include the House passed Section 1071 or any other language that the Conferees deems appropriate to deal with this issue.

As you know, the Fiscal Year 2011 NDAA (P.L. 111-383) states that the Defense Department, "Shall not prohibit, issue any requirement relating to, or collect or record any information relating to the otherwise lawful acquisition, possession, ownership, carrying, or other use of a privately owned firearm, privately owned ammunition, or another privately owned weapon by a member of the Armed Forces or civilian employee of the Department of Defense on property." The law included exceptions to this prohibition but it has also created confusion within the Department as to whether military commanders and mental health professionals can discuss privately owned weapons with service members who appear to be a threat to themselves or others. We know the intention of this language was not to limit suicide prevention; unfortunately recent studies and testimony from military commanders say that this confusion could do just that. In response, the Department issued a clarifying memo but uncertainty remains. A statutory clarification would alleviate any ambiguity.

Suicide rates in the Armed Forces have reached a frightening level, increasing a dramatic 18 percent as of early June 2012 from the same period in 2011. In fact, nearly one service member a day has committed suicide in 2012, surpassing the number of troops we lose in battle. Moreover, nearly three quarters of the military suicides that occurred between 2008 and 2010 were committed with a personal firearm.

Amending this language would simply reaffirm and clarify the ability of military commanders and those tasked with protecting our service members, who identify someone that may be at risk, to discuss personally-owned weapons and perhaps suggest the safe storage of this weapon in a military facility or even the use of a gunlock. This sensible approach does not attempt to limit an individual's 2nd amendment rights.

So often these suicides are unplanned, so delaying the act, even by a short time can mean the difference between life and death. General Peter Chiarelli, former Army Vice Chief of Staff has stated, "If you can separate the individual from the weapon, you can lower the incidences of suicideĀ… And when you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don't believe it's unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house."

The bonds of service are important, especially when an individual is feeling isolated, angry or depressed. That is why it is critical that military commanders have the ability to talk to those at risk about their personal firearms. They are the front line, so to speak, in preventing these terrible tragedies.

We have included a letter from former top military commanders in support of fixing this language and protecting our soldiers and their families. We respectfully request that the conference committee consider the inclusion of Section 1071 from the House NDAA or other appropriate language to help solidify the Defense Department's ability to prevent these tragedies. We so often hear that we must listen to military commanders "on the ground" and that those in command know what's best for our troops. So let's listen to what they are saying and protect our men and women in uniform from the deadly threat of suicide. We appreciate your consideration of this request.

Sincerely,

John F. Kerry

Hank Johnson