The Kansas National Guard has had nine suicides in the last five years; three of those occurred during the last 18 months. "This is not how we treat our soldiers," Kansas National Guard Captain Tara Fields recently told Stars and Stripes. "I'm tired of watching it happen."
Fields, who joined the Kansas National Guard around a year ago as a behavioral health officer, said she repeatedly voiced concerns regarding the number of suicides, but no action was ever taken by guard leadership. Fields had recommended establishing policies to help support soldiers, such as placing behavioral health officers directly in units and routinely reviewing relevant health and mental health policies to make sure they are being followed.
In her interview with Stars and Stripes, Fields recalled an experience on August 13 when she began panicking after she didn't hear back from a soldier she was worried about.
"I snapped," Fields told the outlet, describing her reaction after attempting to alert guard officials, to no avail. "I hit a level of rage I didn't think was freaking possible."
Concerned about her health, Fields' husband called authorities, and she was hospitalized for about a week. At the hospital, she thought about killing herself, she admitted to Stars and Stripes, and was considered a high-risk soldier once she was discharged from the hospital.
Even after that experience, guard leadership did not address her suicide concerns.
"We have to hold our organization accountable," Fields told Stars and Stripes. "We are not doing right by our soldiers."
"The stakes are high… We can do better than this," she added.
However, according to Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, the Kansas National Guard takes suicide prevention seriously, and there are multiple resources available for soldiers, including medical assistance and chaplain services.
"Every time we have that [a suicide], it is a very tragic situation for the Kansas National Guard; it's a very tragic situation for each of us individually," he told Stars and Stripes.
"We have a lot of programs that are available for individuals, but they all rely on that individual being willing to come forward and ask for help, and sometimes that's very difficult for individuals, and it's that stigma," Tafanelli added.
In addition, the Kansas National Guard is collaborating on a new initiative with the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop state-specific plans to address suicide.
"The sooner we can identify that somebody has a problem, but more importantly that they realize they have a problem and want help, I'm very confident we have programs in place that can help them and their families deal with that situation and we continually improve the programs," Tafanelli said.
In March, Kansas Senator Jerry Moran stressed the significance of providing service members access to mental health care and proposed a bill to improve the mental health resources provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Unfortunately, many National Guardsmen and reservists struggle to receive mental health care when they are not deployed or drilling," Moran said at the time.
"This legislation will remove existing barriers to care for National Guardsmen and reservists by allowing them to access readjustment counseling at VA Medical Centers and through VA mental health services," he added.
"We have a duty to care for the men and women who bravely serve our nation, especially as it relates to mental illness and thoughts of suicide," he continued.