By Rear Adm. Sean Buck
Director, 21st Century Sailor Office
This weekend, I returned from visiting Sailors in San Diego, the first of many Fleet Engagement trips by the Navy’s 21st Century Sailor Office. In fact, I was honored to spend a night with the crew of the USS Wayne E. Meyer, operating in the waters nearby Southern California.
My job is to help the CNO build resiliency and fitness in our Navy family. It’s about people. And eyeball to eyeball, I sensed a positive vibe amongst the Sailors and civilian teammates I met for each of the five days of my visit.
Above all else, I was impressed with the way our Sailors are taking care of each other. And after reviewing the positive trends my team collected about the last calendar year, all across our broad portfolio of Sailor Fitness and Resiliency, I found the good news story on the spreadsheets matched the feel I received in the Fleet.
The biggest change to me: we are seeing positive signs that our Navy’s comprehensive strategy to prevent suicide is working.
In calendar year 2013, we reduced suicides by 26 percent from the year before.
Although we could never declare that we’ve permanently reversed what was an alarming trend – we can now point toward a multi-pronged approach, at every echelon of command, from frigates to squadrons, from wings to Fleets.
An approach that seems to be working.
Dramatic effects like this require the efforts of not just a few, but an entire Navy. They are indicative of a united family, working together to take the option of suicide off the table for every Sailor and family member.
Any suicide is one too many. But the fact that our rate per 100,000 (the standard metric other institutions use throughout the Nation) was 12.4 in 2013, down from 16.6 the year before, and significantly below the last reported civilian rate of 25.1, is cause for great encouragement.
Suicide isn’t about numbers, it’s about people caring for others; acting upon what they hear and see, caring about shipmates, 24/7, and treating those who need help – immediately.
We only recently began recording suicide related behaviors – and those numbers have levelled off over the past three years. That tells us that we’ve changed our attitudes and culture in order to create climates of empathetic response for those who have asked for help – and more importantly, those who haven’t yet.
So what else have we done?
A year ago, we launched an effort we called Task Force Resilient, which primarily aimed at the causes of suicide. We brought every resource we could bring to bear to the issue of building resiliency in our Sailors and their families. For suicide, resiliency represents the process of preparing for, recovering from, and adjusting to life in the face of stress, adversity, trauma, or tragedy. We found through our research that there is a link between suicide prevention and resiliency, and that resiliency can be learned.
Armed with that knowledge, we did not wait – we acted – with purpose, conviction, and focused resources all along the continuum of care for Sailors and their families.
We created my position, the 21st Century Sailor Office, where we combined diverse elements of total Sailor fitness, behavioral psychology, operational stress control, harassment, hazing and bullying, suicide prevention, command climate, and sexual assault prevention and response under one umbrella.
We established Operational Stress Control mobile training teams, which today provide outstanding counseling to ships, squadrons, and submarines before they deploy overseas. We are hiring Deployed Resiliency Counselors to get underway alongside the Chaplains, behavioral psychologists, and other medical professionals who proactively assist our Sailors each and every day.
We are doing better in reaching out and touching every Sailor, especially during the gaps of training and transition, when they complete one phase of training and move to the next. It’s all about “Every Sailor Every Day” – and the difference is being made with you, in the Fleet, and we’re applying it to our entire Navy.
The last few paragraphs began with “We” — and that was done purposefully — for it takes a whole Navy to create the kinds of uplifting change we’ve seen, particularly in suicide prevention, but also in drug abuse prevention, alcohol incident and DUI reductions, and more.
Your leadership is making a difference. In the case of suicide, we can’t declare victory. Far from it. But it’s a trend we can all be proud of, a trend that should inspire us to act further, with the knowledge that the positive vibe we feel is real change in the right direction. We’re taking better care of each other, as one, united family should.