Joint Session of State Senate-Assembly Briefed on Military Suicides

On somber subject a brief gleam of hope, NJ is one of the best at identifying at-risk soldiers.

On Monday morning, a soldier apparently committed suicide in King of Prussia, PA; on Sunday, it was one in Illinois; on Saturday, one at Fort Knox, KY.

That stark information came from Brig. Gen Michael Cunniff, adjutant general of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

In July, there were 26 suspected suicides reported among active-duty Army personnel, and another dozen among reservists. He was speaking yesterday at a joint session of the state Senate and Assembly military and veteran affairs committees in Lawrenceville.

“That’s more than one a day,” Cunniff said. “If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.”

Already in the first half of the year, the American military was on a pace of almost one suicide a day, usually a low-ranking, male soldier, according to the Associated Press. That rate jumped in July, prompting a series of “stand downs,” set aside throughout the services to address the issue.

At the joint session, held in the office of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Cunniff and other in-state brass assured legislators that they are responding well to such underlying problems as post-traumatic stress disorders, traumatic brain injuries, and depression among soldiers, reservists and veterans.

With training that now includes “resiliency,” stress management and recovery, New Jersey’s Army and Air National Guards does its best to prepare servicemen and women in advance, the officers said.

Through screening, counseling, and follow-up calls, and other resources, the services try to ensure that soldiers and their families readjust after tours of duty. Similar programs are offered for troops being funneled through Fort Dix, commanders from the base told the legislators.

But New Jersey has not been immune from the turmoil. A member of the Air Guard committed suicide around Christmas, Cunniff said. The dead soldier at Fort Knox was married to a New Jersey reservist, “so we had to get in contact with her,” he said.

Identifying At-Risk Personnel

Still, the various officers could not keep a hint of pride from their voices as they related numbers suggesting the New Jersey commands are among the best in the nation at identifying at-risk soldiers and providing treatment.

Depending on the criteria, New Jersey ranks second behind only the District of Columbia, or third, also trailing New York, in assuring the mental health of its men and women in uniform.

“The Northeast attitude goes a long way in preparing a soldier,” Cunniff said.

So do services. The state has $1.3 million in contracts with 11 providers of post-traumatic stress disorder treatment and counseling for National Guard members and veterans, according to Ray Zawacki, the department’s assistant commissioner.

“We have 2,810 veterans right now in counseling,” he said.

Although the program is structured to provide services for seven years, it aims to plug into federal funding for those in need of further assistance, according to Zawacki. More than half of current clients served during the Vietnam War era, he said.

Military suicides are not confined to the Army, although it is the largest branch of the service and the only one to issue monthly press releases on the situation.

The Associated Press reported that eight Marines apparently killed themselves in July, bringing the total to date for 2012 to 32, matching all of 2011. The count was six in the Air Force, up from just two in June. The Navy reported four, but its previous figures were not available, according to the AP.

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NJ Spotlight is an issue-driven news website that provides critical insight to New Jersey’s communities and businesses. It is non-partisan, independent, policy-centered and community-minded.


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