California Military Community Surges Counter-Suicide Task Force

By NGAC Staff

 Removing Disorder from Post-Traumatic Stress was a subject of conversation at the National Guard Association of California Conference at Camp San Luis Obispo Dec. 6-7, 2019.

Truncating PTSD to PtS, or Peace through Strength, recognizes every soldier’s, airman’s, sailor’s, Marine’s and veteran’s dignity as a distinct PtS unit, each vital to the National Defense Strategy’s success. Changing the PTSD paradigm is one of several tactics the NGAC and California National Guard (CNG) are employing in response President Trump’s Executive Order 13861 calling for the end of the National tragedy of military suicides.

“Suicides have increased 30 percent Worldwide, according to the Center for Disease Control” NGAC President Stan Zezotarski said. “More than half of all Americans know someone who has taken their own life.  Military suicides are a National Security threat.”

Representatives from the CNG, Sergeant Majors Association, Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, Employer Support to the Guard and Reserve, Association of the United States Army, and the California Veterans Commander’s Council were at the conference to brainstorm a  counter-suicide task force charter mirroring that in EO#13861.

“The State Military Department [is] proud of our success to increase suicide awareness and prevention in the force,” said Brig. Gen. (CA) Pete Cross, speaking for Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin. “California National Guard has one of the lowest suicide rates among the 54 states and territories, though one suicide is too many.”

“Saving the One” was the focus of an Oct. 3, 2019 meeting between the NGAC and CNG Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Keegan, where they explored paths for implementing EO#13861. Dialogue continued between NGAC, CNG’s Mental Health professionals, and State Chaplain, culminating with formation of Task Force Outreach—an alliance of California Military Associations and private nonprofit organizations—focused not only on saving “the One,” but end the 22 military suicides that occur daily nationwide.

Gen. Stephen Wilson’s September NDS briefing at the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) Conference in Denver, Colorado emphasized winning the competition with China for combat technological superiority, and seizing the ultimate high ground of space,” Zezotarski said. The Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force said the U.S. victory over America’s most lethal geopolitical threat isn’t guaranteed.

“If we don’t command the respect of the hearts and souls of the troops who operate these systems, can we win?” Zezotarski asked. “Twenty-two suicides per day in the military family is unacceptable. The fact that the National Guard has the highest suicide rate among the three components is a fact we must change.”

It was the NGAC’s challenge to Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville at the NGAUS conference to develop a comprehensive strategy to eradicate suicides Army-wide within three years that triggered the meeting with Keegan; and the impetus for forging TF Outreach on the back of CNG’s suicide prevention program to catapult California into the lead of EO#13861.

Inspiring the “Eradicating Military Suicides by 2022” campaign, which seeks to line up alternative therapies and volunteer resources ahead of the passage of House Resolution 3495 – Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act and span the CNG’s suicide prevention program over the State’s entire military family. Using a strategy of attacking suicidal ideation on both the mental and spiritual health axes with the goal to eradicate the military suicide culture by 2022. The objectives are to diminish the outside stresses of alienation, strained relationships, finances, family disruptions, and career challenges associated with suicidal ideation.

COL (Retired) Dr. Brian Rees spoke to a key mental health objective, making Transcendental Meditation (TM) available to California’s military community. Rees, who serves as the National Director of and Consultant to Operation Warrior Wellness of the David Lynch Foundation, said a $2.4 million Department of Defense study confirms that TM practice for mind, body, and behavior is as effective as Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Health Education in reducing PTSD symptoms. It’s a DoD- approved therapy for treating PTSD.

Chaplain (COL) Wesley Clare, CNG State Chaplain, addressed a critical spiritual objective, expanding the Strong Bonds. Clare said the family seminars have swayed numerous soldiers and airmen from suicidal ideation’s path; saving many marriages and families en route. The Chaplain foresees federal funding shortfalls for Strong Bonds in 2020.

Clare also said that chaplains and mental health professionals must work in tandem. Troops are often reluctant to seek psychological and therapeutic help for fear that medical documentation will damage their military and civilian career reputations, and isolate them from peers and family. Chaplains are sworn to confidentiality, giving troop an outlet with no paper trail. Thus, they can talk and get advice until they feel safe, without effect on their career.

“The Supernatural is in the American military’s DNA,” Zezotarski said. “Our Creator” is enshrined our Declaration of Independence. Spirituality is embedded in Military Regulations as a source of “inner strength.” One of Gen. George Washington’s first Congressional requests was for one chaplain for every regiment in the Continental Army.” If we are timid in acknowledging God, it’s akin to genetically re-engineering the American military’s soul.”

Within this context, he said, TF Outreach is reaching out to 10 Interfaith councils in Northern, Central, and Southern California. California’s Interfaith community, including the Protestant and Catholic churches, provide widespread volunteer counseling and psychotherapy services focused on repairing clinical damage, not necessarily healing the soul, Zezotarski said. Presenting an intriguing mutual assistance possibility to explore. Reserve units can overcome geographical obstacles posed when part-time troops leave armories and melt into the community. With the Nationwide escalation of houses of worship attacks, such as California’s  Islamic Center of Escondido, and the Poway Synagogue, access to security consultation or liaison with local Reserve Units might be helpful as is already happening within the Chaplain Corps.

Brig. Gen. Cross said he came to initiate a conversation, Zezotarski said. But the NGAC says he is continuing the conversation Maj. Gen. Baldwin initiated when he made his staffs available, as well as the ready-made suicide prevention program they built to remove disorder from PTSD; and an order of march for suicide-prevention programs across the military.