Defense Media Network

Interview With U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli

Caring for soldiers

In terms of your initial efforts, based on what you have seen with these personnel indicators, how do you view the recent efforts that you have been able to implement? Do you feel like you are getting traction with your earlier efforts? Are you looking for a short-term program that you can scale up later? What is the vector you have taken and how is it working so far?

Well, first of all, and I think, as you well know, we have decided this is not as much about the mission that I was put on in January of suicide prevention, as much as it is about improving the mental wellness of soldiers and their families. To do that, we have had to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach. One of the things that we’re doing is taking a look at those programs that are available to commanders, and you might make an argument or think that there are not a lot of programs that are available to commanders, when exactly the opposite is true. The fact is that there are too many support programs available to commanders. When you have that short period of dwell when commanders are coming in and preparing to go back into the theater, you don’t help a commander if there are “a thousand flowers,” and he has got to pick the prettiest one when they all look the same to him.

One of the things that my task force is doing is trying to winnow down those programs, move from 32 different agencies that are involved with suicide prevention, down to one agency that is working in concert with all the folks that have to help. I mean everybody from financial assistance and Army substance abuse counselors, chaplains and behavioral health folks, to general practitioners and marriage and family life counselors – all those folks that you have to pull together to provide these needed services. Now, there are two big ideas that we’re working that are going to have tremendous long-term benefit. The first of them is the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) $50 million study, and this is huge. We have got a study team together from both inside DOD – we have some of the experts in suicide, PTSD, and TBI – who are partnering with Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Michigan in a cooperative effort that will be, we think, as big as the Framingham Study was to heart disease back in the ’60s and ’70s.

I am unaware of anything done by the Army as big as this on any health issue in its history.

This is huge, and not only is it going to help the United States Army and the Department of Defense, it’s going to have a tremendous impact, I believe, on the U.S. and probably the world population as a whole, in understanding what some of the reasons are that people commit suicide. That’s a huge idea. The other big idea that is going to revolutionize the way we do this is to move us from being very reactive to people showing symptoms of stress, to very proactive. The key to this is the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program and the resiliency training that we are going to give soldiers, not when they have been in for 20 years or 10 years or 15 years, but from the day they enter the Army. Our soldiers are going to be given this resiliency training that will be part of their initial entry training and will stay with them, and be part of their career throughout their time in the United States Army.

I guess my follow up to that is: Are you doing anything for commanders’ stress? They are soldiers too.

Yes, and the fact of the matter is they should be at the front of the line for a number of reasons. One, because they are soldiers too, but two, because there is no greater symbol that anybody can give to reduce the stigma of reaching out and getting the help than when commanders show a willingness to do it themselves. You probably followed what Gen. Carter Ham said he did when he returned from Iraq about his need to get some help. His so-called “coming out” to tell his personal story has had a huge impact on the force. I want to see the day when a brigade commander, because we are a brigade centered force today, is the first person who goes in to get that post-deployment evaluation and all of his soldiers see it. I think that you are today finding enlightened commanders understand that they have got to erase the stigma of asking for help in their units, and [encouraging] people who have fought for over eight years to reach out and get the help they need without worrying that it is going to affect their career. The enlightened commanders are the commanders that are doing just exactly that, setting the example.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...