Defense Media Network

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

Caring for soldiers

So spiritual welfare is taking on a broader and deeper meaning?

Exactly, exactly. Chaplains today find themselves in very difficult situations, doing counseling that they never were trained to do. Even though Army chaplains are trained in counseling, some of this is very difficult counseling. We are also using new tools that apply to this generation of soldiers. I will just call your attention to the Beyond the Front video we used when we had our suicide prevention “stand down.” It is an interactive video that takes you through two superb vignettes where you go through and make decisions about the soldier’s actions. One of them is about a soldier who is downrange, who begins by getting a “Dear John” letter, compounded by the fact that the ATM card he left at home with his girlfriend has been used by her new boyfriend, who not only cleaned out his bank account but also got his girlfriend pregnant.

The video helps you work your way through that situation, and then you think ‘we’ve got him back moving in the right direction,’ only to have him go out on patrol and have his best friend killed in an engagement with the enemy. You are forced to make decisions along the line here, which either allow this young man to get the help he needs and make it through, or if you make the wrong decisions along the way, the last scene will find you at his memorial service. We also have another one where two senior NCOs, essentially peers of the same rank, are interacting and you have to make choices along the way. One of the senior NCOs is definitely displaying symptoms of PTSD, and if you make the right decisions along the way, you save him and his career and his life. If you don’t, again you end up at a memorial service. So, these kinds of things are new, are innovative, and are ways that people are beginning to grasp the things you have to address to reduce the rates of suicide and other problems we are working on.

Within the context of what you just talked about, are there roles for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in your organization and in what you are trying to do?

We are reaching out to everybody we possibly can.

Fisher House, USO, whatever? I mean, are you literally saying: Come one come all? We need your help?

We are doing our best within the ethics rules we work under, to incorporate as many of the ideas and services offered by folks as possible. Organizations like the USO and the Fisher Foundation, where Arnold Fisher has done so much for soldiers who have lost arms and legs by building the Center for Intrepid in San Antonio. He is doing the same thing for PTSD and TBI at Bethesda, which will be the new Walter Reed in a few years. He now is looking at providing satellite centers to the Center for the Intrepid for TBI and PTSD at key and critical posts, camps, and stations for both the United States Army and Marine Corps around the country. So, we are reaching out to everyone we possibly can to get the help we need, like veterans organizations that are willing to sit down and talk to soldiers who have had some of the same experiences. We will listen and steal the good ideas from anybody who is willing to give them to us.

You sound like a veteran pitcher who’s got three outs to get to the end of the game, in this case the end of FY 09. What results have you seen? Have you seen any of those key metrics move in the right direction?

I hate to talk about that because it is really early in this entire process and there is so much more work still to be done. That said, we really started to see suicides go up in August of ’08, and really reached a peak in February of ’09 and January of ’09. In those two months we had 41 suicides in the United States Army, which is just absolutely through the roof from what we normally see. What we have seen February through July 2009, is the rate come down except for a slight spike in May 2009. I believe that’s because of the involvement of Army leaders and soldiers at all levels in taking care of their buddies out in the field, and I want to sustain that. I want to continue to see the numbers come down over time, and hopefully get to zero. But if not zero, at a number that is far better than it is today. So, I am starting to see some hopeful early signs, but as to your analogy of in the ninth inning, I still feel like I am in the first inning and trying to get to the last out in the ninth.

Well then, one final question. Did you General Chiarelli ask for help when you returned from Iraq?

You know, I didn’t, but I should have. I think that I should have gotten off the plane and led my soldiers through. It’s a leadership thing. Knowing what I know today, I wish I had been more out front in getting and showing my soldiers that there is no stigma attached to this.

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