FORT WAINWRIGHT, ALASKA -- Army leaders -- driven to enrich the morale and quality of life for troops and families stationed in the great North -- have launched multiple short- and long-term initiatives across U.S. Army Alaska to bolster the spirits of arctic warriors.
Many quality-of-life pushes were triggered based on Soldier feedback from a recent public health study. Changes include black-out curtains in barracks, improved fitness facilities, healthier food options, better access to behavioral healthcare, and other initiatives, following a string of suicides at the post last year.
"Suicide is a horrible, difficult issue and one in which our behavioral health scientists have worked very hard," Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said during a press briefing at Fort Wainwright Monday. "It is very challenging to truly identify root causes associated with that, so we watch it very closely."
McCarthy and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston spent more than 24 hours in America's 49th state, where the duo toured post facilities and met with troops. The stop also provided a firsthand look at what's needed for future improvements on the post ahead of the fiscal year 2022 defense budget.
"Ultimately, we want to see suicides go down," Grinston said. "We must understand the warning signs, it's as much about education and knowing your teammate to your left and right, [as well as] knowing about their families, and the challenges they face in their lives, so you can be there for them on a tough day."
One approach to strengthening Soldiers, Grinston said, is through an initiative called, "This is my squad." The push is aimed to build cohesive units across the Army through ownership and a positive mental outlook.
"This is my squad' takes ownership of the people around you," Grinston said. "[The campaign] is a positive look at life, where you wake up and you say, 'I joined the Army because I wanted to do this. I want to do that PT, I want to climb that hill, and I want to be challenged."
The senior leaders also gave examples of how they implement the program into their lives, and how even at their level and responsibility, at times they'll take a moment to ask, "Is everything okay?"
BEHAVIORAL HEALTH STUDY AND STRATEGIES
Last year, a team from the U.S. Army Public Health Center's Behavioral Health and Social Outcome Program -- or BSHOP -- traveled to Fort Wainwright to conduct an epidemiological consultation, or EPICON, to pinpoint why the spike in suicide deaths have occurred.
The study was initially launched in the wake of five suicide deaths from May 2018 to April 2019 .
Although the research was unable to zero in on any conclusive links in the deaths, it did uncover multiple risk factors -- such as physical pain, inadequate sleep, and personal relationships of Soldiers. Each of these factors are congruent with previous studies, the executive summary reported.
The research identified that 1-in-5 Soldiers feared stigmas attached to asking for help, such as being deemed "weak" by others.
The results of the study -- released last fall -- were delivered with several recommendations to improve morale and quality of life for troops. Since then, several of those changes are either in place or on the way, McCarthy said.
COMBAT READINESS TRAINING FACILITIES
Soldiers surveyed -- across all ranks -- advocated for leaders to revamp physical fitness options on the post. Leaders listened, and quickly implemented a 24-hour access policy, said Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, U.S. Army Alaska commanding general.
Additional feedback also asked for upgraded gym equipment. Their suggestion prompted Army leaders to take action. Following the request, more than $910,000 in new gym equipment was ordered and is expected to show up at the base's two gyms by April, officials said.
"Soldiers wanted larger facilities for physical fitness," Andrysiak said. "One of their concerns was the Army Combat Fitness Test."
Another plan on the to-do list is constructing new combat readiness training facilities to help train for the ACFT, he said. Right now, the first two facilities are under contract and slated to begin construction in the late spring, early summer.
On top of that, sometime in April, Army Material Command is slated to distribute training facilities -- similar to what is found in deployed environments -- for Soldiers to do physical training in a somewhat climate-controlled environment, Andrysiak said.
In addition to working out, Soldiers asked for -- and received -- easier access to high-quality, nutritious, and affordable food options, Andrysiak said.
MORE ABUNDANT, HEALTHY FOOD OPTIONS
"We've put investments into the dining facilities, with Wi-Fi in dining facilities and new TVs," Andrysiak said. "We put investments in getting above and beyond the rate that is allocated per Soldier, so we can get higher-quality foods into those dining facilities."
Effective Feb. 1, the basic daily food allowance -- or BDFA -- at Alaska installations will increase by 25 percent, with a current interim increase already in effect of 10 percent from Nov. 1, 2019, to Jan. 31, 2020.
The bulkier BFDA amount will give Alaska dining facility managers a larger budget to replenish their food inventory with increased, higher quality products at their facilities, officials said.
The change -- initially requested from the Soldiers surveyed -- has already sparked positive feedback from troops, Andrysiak said, including a noticeably larger presence in the dining facility.
LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN
Nearly a third of the Soldiers surveyed mentioned they suffer from sleeplessness, and more than 40% of them blame their tossing and turning on Alaska's extended daylight hours in the summer.
Daylight can linger more than 21 hours in June at Fort Wainwright.
To help Soldiers get enough rest, barracks windows have been measured to receive black-out blinds by May 1, officials said. The contracting phase is currently in progress.
The opposite is typical in the depths of winter. During this season, Soldiers only receive a handful of daylight hours. Because of this, not only is sunlight in short supply, but Vitamin D -- a bone-strengthening nutrient the body absorbs from the sun's rays -- is scarce, too.
To ensure the nutrient is available for its residents, the Medical Department Activity--Alaska is currently dispensing over-the-counter supplemental doses of Vitamin D, with unlimited refills, at Army pharmacies.
ADDITIONAL CHANGES IN PLACE, PENDING
Another change is an on-call shuttle transportation system for troops, Andrysiak said, which is especially vital in the winter, when road conditions make driving difficult.
"The shuttle system gets Soldiers, not just from dining facilities, but anywhere they need to go on the installation," Andrysiak said.
In hopes to combat stigmas around mental health, MEDDAC-AK formed an intensive outpatient behavioral health program and started taking referrals in December, according to officials. The first patients started receiving care earlier this month.
More initiatives planned include extended time off for Soldiers and more entertainment. Fort Wainwright also received $240,000 to spruce up its entertainment options for troops and their families.
Down the road, multiple barracks are slated to be renovated, McCarthy said.
Identifying suicide warning signs "must become a part of our DNA," McCarthy said.
Suicide is "an incredibly complex problem," he said, adding preventing it "has the total focus and energy of the Army leadership."
The Military Crisis Line is available to help link those in need with trained counselors. This confidential, immediate help is available 24/7, at no cost to Regular Army, Guard, and Reserve members, their families, and friends.
To access the Military Crisis Line, call 800-273-8255, or text 838255