I just returned home from my third trip to Fort Bliss in two months. I made the first two trips so that I could learn about the installation and the leadership’s approach to preventing soldier suicide. On this most recent visit I was invited to help train officers as part of the Army-wide Suicide Prevention Stand Down that occurred on September 27.
Fort Bliss is located in El Paso, Texas—barely a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Home to the 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss is one of the Army’s largest installations, with approximately 30,000 soldiers. It also has one of the lowest suicide rates in the Army.
I met the commanding general of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, Dana Pittard, through rather unusual circumstances.
In May 2012 Major General Pittard received national attention for a blog that he wrote following the suicide of a Fort Bliss soldier. In his blog, he referred to suicide as an “absolutely selfish act” and implored soldiers to “be an adult, act like an adult and deal with your real life problems like the rest of us.”
He drew widespread criticism for his comments and later issued the following statement: “I realize that my statement was not in line with the Army’s guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide . . . With my deepest sincerity and respect towards those whom I have offended, I retract that statement.”
I was interviewed by the press—and later asked to write a column—about the general’s statements. Through a bit of research, I learned that General Pittard’s comments were written shortly after he returned from the memorial service of a soldier who had killed himself in front of his six-year-old twin daughters.
My comments about his blog focused on the impact of suicide on those who survive it, the anger that survivors feel at the person who chooses to end life rather than continue to struggle with the demons that torment them. While not excusing the comments that came across as uncaring, I attempted to make sense of them. Soon after my column was published, I received an invitation to visit Fort Bliss.
I had no idea what to expect from General Pittard, and I was very surprised by what I found.
The general is a quiet, thoughtful, and unassuming man who is intensely passionate about preventing what he refers to as “preventable soldier deaths.” He believes that we can and must improve the overall psychological well-being and the resilience of the force. He believes that we can and must change military culture so that those in need of mental health care seek it when they need it and those in need of intervention are identified as quickly as possible.
He also believes that we can and must prevent high risk and self-destructive behavior among those who are struggling with issues that perhaps even they are unable to identify or articulate. Most important, General Pittard believes that suicide prevention—and the overall well-being of the force—is a leadership issue. Time and resources must be devoted to these concerns, but nothing will change if leaders fail to take proper ownership of the issues at hand.
And indeed there is growing evidence regarding the consequences of our failure to address these concerns for those who serve. An article in the September 29 Austin American-Statesman revealed that an alarming number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who came home to Texas after leaving the military have died as a result of suicide, drug overdoses, and car accidents.
Fort Bliss has implemented numerous initiatives and programs to accomplish the goal of creating the most healthy and resilient military community in the country. While most of these programs are not unique to the Texas installation, the manner in which they are promoted, championed, and supported is quite unusual—and General Pittard’s efforts seem to be making a difference.
Every soldier with whom I spoke, regardless of rank or position, expressed tremendous respect and fondness for their general. Many admitted to me that when they first arrived at “Team Bliss” and heard about the commitment to soldiers and families, they assumed that this was just another gimmick. What they found was a general who is intensely serious about these priorities, a general who puts action behind the rhetoric.
But General Pittard isn’t satisfied with what has been accomplished thus far. He is already moving to expand those programs that are working, and he is open to identifying additional tools and initiatives that can help his soldiers and their families. For example, he is looking to expand Fort Bliss’s efforts to engage the larger El Paso community because he recognizes that there are unexplored opportunities and willing partners that can help him harness available community-based resources.
Although I didn’t ask General Pittard specifically about the comments he made last May, I suspect that the anger he expressed that day—about a soldier who indeed was unable to think of anything other than his own pain—resulted from his assumption that every soldier can and should be saved and his belief that it is his responsibility to ensure that they are.
Rumor has it that General Pittard’s career may have been severely damaged as a result of his comments. I hope this isn’t the case. We need leaders like General Pittard both at Fort Bliss and in the Pentagon, if we are to end the current suicide epidemic within the Army, improve its health and fitness, and prepare it to start doing more with less.