Retired US military officers say changes in law could prevent suicides

 

Washington

A group of senior retired generals and admirals are calling for Congress to amend a recent law that they say "dangerously interferes" with the ability of commanders to battle the epidemic of suicides among members of the military.

Legislation added to the 2011 defense authorization bill at the urging of gun-rights advocates prohibits commanders from collecting any information about weapons privately owned by troops.

Critics say the law prevents commanders from being able to talk to service members about their privately owned weapons — such as encouraging the use of a gunlock or temporary storage away from their homes — even in cases when the commanding officer thinks the service member is at risk for suicide.

"The law is directly prohibiting conversations that are needed to save lives," states a letter sent last week to members of Congress by a dozen retired officers, including former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer and former surgeons general for the Army, Air Force and Navy.

"It unnecessarily hampers a commander from taking all possible practical steps for preventing suicide," one of the signers, Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, said Saturday. Dubik commanded the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

Suicides in the active-duty force are occurring across the services this year at the rate of more than one a day. As of the end of October, the number of suspected suicides by active-duty soldiers in the Army alone had reached 166, one more than the total for last year.

Forty-eight percent of military suicides in 2010 involved privately owned weapons, according to Defense Department statistics. In many instances, the suicides are impulsive acts in which easy availability of a weapon played a key role, several officers who signed the letter said.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is trying to add language amending the law to the Senate version of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act bill, which is expected to be finalized Monday.

"We're very hopeful it will be included," said John Madigan, senior director of public policy for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a group that has advocated the change.

Similar language to change the law has been included in the House version of the bill that has already passed. The language authorizes military mental health professionals and commanding officers to ask service members whether they have or plan to acquire firearms, ammunition or other weapons when the officials have "reasonable grounds" to believe that a service member is at high risk for suicide or causing harm to others.

Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the 2011 restriction, said in a statement that the law "in no way prevents a commander from taking necessary steps to mitigate a suicidal or dangerous situation, to include asking a service member if they have weapons in their private residence and asking that the service member allow those weapons to be temporarily held by the commander."

Nonetheless, Inhofe said he had no objections to amending the language. "Although I have not been contacted by any commander who felt this was not already authorized, I support including this language in the final NDAA if it clears up any confusion," he said.

Inhofe said his 2011 amendment, which was supported by the National Rifle Association, protects the constitutional rights of military members and their families "by prohibiting the Department of Defense from requiring further registration of privately owned weapons beyond what is already required by state and federal law."

After the law was signed, the Defense Department issued guidance indicating that conversations about firearms can still take place in some circumstances.

But in their letter last week, the retired senior officers said "military commanders deserve clear authority to take the appropriate action to protect their warfighters without any fear of violating the law."

Advocates for changing the law said they did not know of any specific cases involving suicide or attempted suicide in which the law prevented a commander from intervening. But they said concern about the restrictions is nonetheless high.

"I hear all the time that commanders and clinicians feel their hands are tied," said Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a former senior Army psychiatrist who signed the letter.

"When this thing came up, it contradicted everything we'd been doing," he added. "It was so contradictory to the intent of the suicide prevention."

Kerry noted that as of June, suicides among the active duty force were up 18 percent over the same period the year before.

"That's a frightening figure but it damn well better be a wake-up call," Kerry said in an e-mailed comment Friday.

"Commanding officers in our armed forces can make a difference, and they are committed to saving lives," he said. Given the numbers of military suicides committed with personal firearms, he added, "we know this can make a difference."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
News
news... you won't believe how bad their skills were
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas