Retired Military Officials Call On Congress To Help Prevent Military Suicides

By Danielle Baussan

A group of retired high level U.S. military officers are calling on Congress to repeal an amendment to the FY 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that they say interferes with efforts to prevent military suicides.

USA Today reported last month that 2012 was the worst year for military suicides since careful tracking began in 2001. A military suicide occurs about once every 80 minutes and most of these suicides are a spontaneous act committed with a private firearm. But medical professionals and commanding officers can’t even ask at-risk service members about concerns about suicide or whether a suicidal service member has a gun at home. That’s due to an FY 2011 NDAA provision, Section 1062, introduced by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) that prevents any questions about firearms, even when a military member is thought to be considering suicide or a harm to others.

In a letter sent to Members of Congress last week, twelve retired military leaders, including Retired Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis of the U.S. Army, said Congress should repeal Inhofe’s measure as “an immediate step that can and must be taken now to save lives.” This is a clear call for action by military leaders who have seen the impacts of “suicide gag orders” firsthand.

Now, it’s up to Congress — really, the Senate — to make it happen. The New York Times quoted Inhofe supporting an amendment “if it clears up any confusion” about whether people can ask about weapons to prevent suicide. Earlier this year, the Republican-led House of Representatives cleared up that confusion, passing language in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to allow commanding officers and health officials to ask service members about suicidal thoughts and private guns.

So we’ve got the original sponsor on record supporting efforts to clarify the language, a House-passed NDAA that includes that language, and highly decorated military officials asking Congress for their help. And yet, there’s not one amendment in the current Senate version of the NDAA to help prevent military suicide.

It’s time for the Senate to take a stand and include some version of the House language in their NDAA. Leaving an issue like this on the cutting room floor does a disservice members of the U.S. military.