UPDATED: Preventing Military Suicides is a Command Responsibility; Why Not Then Hold Commanders Responsible?

Army LtGen. Robert Cone, shown above meeting with the military’s highest ranked uniform officer Adm. Mike Mullen in 2010, was promoted to 4-star general in 2011. Cone was home-based with commands located at Fort Hood, Texas (in between assignments overseas), during a period when the base set an all-time record for soldier suicides. Retired Army Col. Philip Lisagor, a 3-tour veteran of the Iraq War, suggests the best way to stop military suicides is to evaluate commanders on suicide prevention results. (DoD)

*Note: The above caption previously stated Gen. Cone served as Commander at Fort Hood. The caption has since been edited for accuracy. View Cone’s complete biography and history of command assignments.

BLOGBACK: This blog has received official correspondence from a representative of Gen Cone, the Army general officer pictured above. The official suggested in his communication that the photograph of Gen Cone published along with the article below is inappropriate and amounts to defamation of Gen Cone’s character. The editor of this blog disagrees. The official further requested Gen Cone’s photograph be removed. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is this: Gen Cone is a general officer serving on active duty in the US Army at a time when suicides are at an all time high throughout the force. Gen Cone took command of Fort Hood’s largest command, III Corps, on Sept. 23, 2009 and relinquished that command on April 21, 2011. These are the facts and are avoidable … despite the personal discomfort which Gen Cone may struggle with due to these facts. Command is a difficult burden unique to military leadership. This special burden and responsibility can be no higher than that residing with uniformed leader who has attained a 4-star general officer’s rank. Any suggestion that temporary assignment or deployment overseas absolved this general — or any leader — from his leadership responsibility to the soldiers serving under or attached to his command, both abroad and in garrison, is without merit.

The Military Suicide Report would welcome and encourage a full independent investigation or congressional hearings into the record number of suicides which have occurred at Fort Hood to examine and uncover the circumstances prior to each soldier’s death.

It is important to note that all military commands must collect every minor detail after a service member dies by suicide. Commanders must file a detailed report for every death with higher headquarters at the Pentagon. Each report paints a complete picture of the service member’s life in the days prior to their death. DoD’s National Center for Telehealth & Technology collects this information and compiles it into a report titled the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report (DODSER). This report has been published annually since 2008. For unknown reasons, the DoD has not published a DODSER for 2011. The Military Suicide Report suspects the 2011 DODSER will be published shortly after the 2012 presidential election is decided.


Soldier suicides reported at Fort Hood

2011 – unknown (Army has not reported data for 2011)

2010 – 22

2009 – 11

2008 – 14

source: San Antonio Express News

View Gen Cone’s assumption of command ceremony on Sept. 23, 2009

View Gen Cone’s relinquishing of command ceremony on April 21, 2011.

Making Commanders Accountable for Soldiers’ Suicides

by Philip Lisagor
New York Times, June 26, 2012

Suicide remains an alarming and growing problem throughout the Army, with the annual number of suicides now greater than the number of deaths resulting from combat.

A few years ago the Army took the aggressive position that suicide prevention should be taken away from its Medical Department and given to the “line” — the commanders of troops. This was accomplished by placing the deputy chief of staff of the Army at the time, General Peter W. Chiarelli, in charge of suicide prevention.

This was a tremendous move in the right direction. However, it wasn’t enough and hasn’t solved the problem, as recent data show.

The Army needs to take this concept of command responsibility one step further. Every officer and noncommissioned officer is evaluated on at least a yearly basis.

Officers receive an Officer Efficiency Report, known as an O.E.R., and noncommissioned officers receive an N.C.O.E.R.

Lots of these report cards are full of bullet points that come off of guides to writing reviews. It should be easy to include a report on the number of soldiers who have attempted or committed suicide in a particular unit. (The same data should be included in the reviews for individuals one level up the chain of command to ensure accountability.)

For your basic grunt this would include the soldier’s platoon sergeant and company first sergeant, as well as his company commander, a captain, and the company commander’s battalion leader, a lieutenant colonel.

The accountability and transparency of enumerating suicides and attempted suicides on evaluations would push these leaders to be increasingly active in ascertaining the mental well-being of the troops under their command.

The Army runs on the philosophy that the job of commanders is to articulate the mission to their troops and to take care of the troops, and that the troops will then take care of the mission.

This mantra can be energized by holding commanders accountable for suicides and attempted suicides that occur on their watch.

Dr. Philip Lisagor, a retired Army colonel who is a cardiothoracic and trauma surgeon, served three tours in Iraq, including one as deputy commander for clinical services of the 2nd Medical Brigade. He was also chief of quality management of the Army’s medical command from 2000 to 2007. He was awarded a Bronze Star.

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