The Pentagon won't link COVID-19 and troop suicides. Army leaders disagree.

Elizabeth Howe
October 13, 2020 - 3:08 pm
Gen. McConville

US Army

"The scientists have said they're not able to show causation between COVID and suicide, but I would argue -- at least my sense is -- it is having an effect. Because it disconnects people," Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville said at a briefing Tuesday. 

The Department of Defense pushed back recently against data that suggested COVID-19 prevention measures led to an increase in suicides among active-duty troops so far in 2020 -- but Army leaders have repeatedly connected one to the other.

"We'll need to have the full year of data and investigations completed to determine the cause of death. What may be looking like an increasing or decreasing trend in raw counts may not be statistically meaningful once we have all the data," Director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office Dr. Karin Orvis said during a Pentagon briefing at the beginning of October. 

Army leaders have repeatedly disagreed, most recently during a press briefing Tuesday at the Pentagon. 

"When we look at the after-action reports of soldiers that have died of suicide, it tends to be situations where relationships have gone bad -- where they start to feel that they don't belong," McConville explained. "One of the initiatives that we have is to give time back to our junior leaders so they can build these cohesive teams where everyone feels that they're part of the team and when there's an issue they know who to go to."

Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, who was also present at Tuesday's briefing, said he didn't know if he could "categorically" say that the pandemic and the increase in suicides were linked, but that the Army was "concerned about the isolation."

While the Department of Defense has declined to definitively link the two, they have conceded that they “underestimated” the impact of isolation.

“The isolation is a really difficult aspect of this,” Dr. Elise Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency said in a discussion with Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Joseph Martin last week. “One of the things we always knew was important was connection, but we really underestimated how important it is.”

The DoD has been seemingly selective with what CDC guidance it adheres to. "Mission essential" operations have continued largely unhindered despite the risks of training during a pandemic. Meanwhile, troop morale, mental health and military families have taken the brunt of the impact of prevention measures. 

The data does not exist to determine whether quarantine measures and restriction of movement policies have significantly prevented the spread of COVID-19 throughout the Department of Defense. As of last Friday morning, the DoD reported 48,513 cases of COVID-19 within its active-duty ranks. But even if these quarantine and travel restriction measures -- which cause more isolation and therefore potentially increase suicide risk -- are working, they are being combined with less than optimal behaviors. 

The Army is still largely requiring soldiers to wear neck gaiters -- even after the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control identified these as one of the least effective face coverings. Despite significant pushback, DoD moved forward with a wide range of close-quarters training operations even after several outbreaks. More than 1,000 complaints of COVID-19 prevention measure violations have been filed with the DoD Inspector General. 

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Reach Elizabeth Howe: @ECBHowe.

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