The Army Reserve’s new top officer, sworn in this June, has only two big concerns about his new job: making sure soldiers in the field don’t sweat the details of threatened budget reductions, and finding ways to stop the troubling trend of suicides among members of the armed forces.
On the matter of budgets, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley says it’s a topic for Pentagon folks like himself to worry about, and doesn’t want it to be a topic of distraction for reservists across the 50 states and U.S. territories where reservists are based.
“We’ll do less with less, and that’s okay,” Talley said during an hour-long appearance on Federal News Radio’s On DoD. “Not everything has the same priority. We’re leaders, and we’ll set priorities and make tough decisions. I’m more worried about how we communicate that to the formations. I don’t want captains and colonels in the field to worry about funding issues. I want them to focus on the basics: shoot, move and communicate.” Talley said the Army Reserve is relatively well positioned to handle the $487 billion worth of reductions the Pentagon has already planned to take from DoD’s previously-planned ten-year budget. Sequestration would change the funding equation, reducing the overall military’s budget by another $55 billion in 2013 as part of $492 billion in Congressionally-mandated, automatic budget cuts that will kick in on January 2 unless lawmakers agree on a Plan B.
“But we need to make sure we send a calm, cool and accurate message to the field so they’re not panicking over potential funding issues that may or may not happen,” Talley said.
Talley said doing “less with less” doesn’t mean the Army Reserve will give up on any of the unique enabling capabilities that its doctors, railroad engineers, cybersecurity experts and soldiers from myriad other specialties bring to military commanders. “There’s going to be a steady demand signal for the Army Reserve, and we’re ready to meet that demand,” he said.
Rather, a lot of training will have to be done in ways that are less costly. “One of the ways we have to do better is that we won’t be able to do extended active-duty training. We have to do more home-station training,” he said. “That means making more use of live virtual training, so more use of simulators for example. The good news is we have that capability in our Army, so we need to use it as it makes sense in order to minimize travel expenses and in order to minimize cost of training.”
Talley said the rise in Army suicides is the only other topic that keeps him up at night. For the first seven months of 2012, the Army recorded 116 suicides among active-duty soldiers. July was a particularly bad month: 26 soldiers serving on active duty were believed to have taken their own lives, double the month before. Another 12 fatalities were being investigated as suicides among soldiers in reserve status.
The Army has declared September suicide prevention awareness month and is directing a servicewide suicide stand-down on Sept. 27. Talley and other Army leaders are recording video messages telling soldiers that seeking help for emotional troubles that might lead to suicide is a sign of strength, not weakness.
“We’re now having more deaths from suicide than combat losses,” Talley said. “The challenge we’ve got there is how do we stop that enemy called suicide. All of the Army leaders are working every day to try to defeat that enemy, and there’s no simple solution or silver bullet. We’ve studied it ad-nauseum.” But Talley said in the Reserve, there are many suicides that don’t appear to be linked to the stress of combat.
“Most suicides in the Army Reserve are committed by single soldiers, not soldiers that are married and have families. Most of them are committed by soldiers who may not have deployed or had multiple deployments, so we’re not seeing a direct connection between mobilization and deployment and a higher suicide rate. What we are seeing that’s pretty common is that most of the time there’s a financial stress or a failed relationship that somehow is coupled into the suicide equation.”
Talley said suicide is a national problem, and the Reserve, as a reflection of society, is suffering along with the rest of the nation. However, at-risk reservists can sometimes be easily detected before tragedy strikes, Talley said.
“These are soldiers that are in the Army Reserve and they don’t come to work,” he said. “They don’t come to drill regularly, they’re not actively engaged in the unit, they’re somewhat disengaged. And these suicides are generally happening outside of a military setting. What we’ve got to do is reach out to those non- participants and bring them into the Army Reserve in a more integrated way.”
One way the Reserve is trying to do that is through an outreach and support program called Fort Family. Talley said one function of the program is to let commanders or peers who are concerned about the mental health of a fellow soldier contact the 24/7 hotline. From there, the program can reach out to an at-risk soldier’s friends and family and ask them to help intervene. The program also provides services such as debt management, emergency funds, temporary housing and referrals for separation and coping issues. “We just have to know our soldiers better and make sure they understand that they’re part of our Army family and there’s no problem that they have that we can’t help them solve,” Talley said.