Chiarelli: A True Model for Future Military Leaders

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Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade

Chiarelli acknowledges applause as he leaves the Pentagon at the end of his final full day in uniform

General Peter Chiarelli retired three weeks ago. He was the Vice Chief of Staff  (VCSA) of the U.S. Army, which means the service’s second most powerful general with four stars, his only boss being the Chief of Staff of the Army. In actuality his bosses included Congress, and the President, the Commander in Chief.

But Gen. Chiarelli considered his troops to be his most important mission. His clarion call for the last few years was to minimize suicide among Army Soldiers.

I attended his retirement ceremony on the parade field at Ft Myers. That is a very special place, next to Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon. It was 31 January, but warm enough to have the ceremony outdoors.  The Old Guard looked splendid, dressed in uniforms from the Revolutionary War to today.

Many dignitaries lauded him and his wife at his retirement, including the Secretary of Defense, and a multitude of generals.  Most of the speeches referenced his concentration on lessoning the wounds of war: PTSD, TBI, and suicide.

When the VCSA first attained his position, we had the chance to brief him about suicide prevention efforts. He reacted angrily. “Your efforts are only a power point slide deep,” he said. (At least that’s my recollection; the actual words may have been different, and more profane.)

I mentioned that the Air Force had a procedure where every suicide was briefed up the chain of command, landing on the desk of the AF Chief of Staff.

He roared into action. He started a monthly meeting where all suicides would be briefed up to him, from the two- and three-stars from around the globe.  He began the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, which then evolved into the Army Suicide Prevention, Risk Prevention and Health Promotion task force.

Frankly this made all of our lives in the Army Medical Department much more difficult, as we answered numerous taskers about polypharmacy and access to care.

The suicide rate continued to rise. It was a clearly a frustration to the tanker general, who believed if you put enough steel downrange, the target would go down.

The suicide rate remained high through 2010. Finally it began to stabilize in the active Army in 2011, though still continues to rise in the National Guard. How much the gradual flattening is due to his efforts and how much to other factors (the end of combat in Iraq, improved re-integration efforts back home, more screening and hotlines by the military and VA) is unclear.

There have been 2.4 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unemployment among recent vets remains at a dismal level. No one really knows their rate of homelessness or suicide. These issues are not something one general alone can put enough steel on target to diminish. It requires a national effort, similar to the war drive in World War II.

However I — and many others– are worried that without Gen. Chiarelli’s attention on suicide and PTSD, and with the war dying down, there will be less attention paid to the so-called invisible wounds of war. The general represents a true model for future military leaders, and those tapping such leaders should never forget his example and dedication.

Thanks to Dr. Larry Ronan for helping inspire this tribute.