Alaska’s US senators are sponsoring a campaign to improve military mental health after a spike in suicides

WASHINGTON – Alaska’s United States Senators have introduced legislation aimed at improving the quality of life and expanding mental health resources for service members as the number of U.S. Army suicide victims in Alaska rises.

The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act would increase pay by $300 per month for service members conducting cold-weather operations, among other benefits. The law also aims to train and retain more behavioral health professionals to work with the military by approving annual awards of up to $50,000 and developing a graduate program in counseling and social work at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan sponsored the act following a spike in Alaska Army suicides in 2021. Last year, at least 11 service members died by suicide at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks.

A 2019 Army study identified risk factors for suicide in Alaska, including “isolation, stigma, limited resources, poor coping skills, alcohol use and poor quality of life,” according to a USA Today investigation. More than a quarter of the soldiers surveyed said they felt worse off financially after moving to Alaska, and 10.8% had suicidal thoughts.

[Earlier coverage: An alarming number of active-duty soldiers in Alaska died by suicide last year]

In April, Sullivan and Rep. Jackie Speier, a San Francisco Democrat and chair of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel, attended listening sessions at JBER and Fort Wainwright. Lawmakers heard from military members, their families and behavioral health professionals.

“Our trip made it clear that Congress must act to both address stressors unique to Alaska and increase access to behavioral health services throughout the military,” Speier said in a statement.

In fiscal 2020, the Army invested $214.5 million in infrastructure projects aimed at improving the quality of life for service members. The law aims to address long-term issues like a shortage of behavioral health professionals, but would also help fund short-term quality of life improvements like a pilot car-sharing plan or a free flight home from Alaska during a three-year tour and $125 monthly internet allowance.

The Congressional Budget Office has not yet produced a cost estimate for the law.

Calling the law an “important investment in the military” in a phone interview Thursday, Murkowski said it would relieve financial pressure on service members who are new to Alaska and may not anticipate the high cost of living.

“We know that financial pressure is related to family stress. It’s a major risk factor for suicide,” Murkowski said.

Sullivan, a Marine Corps reservist and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also spoken out in favor of improving mental health in the military. He told Alaska lawmakers in April that a soldier under his command committed suicide while serving as a naval officer.

“As a Marine, I have experienced firsthand the training and toughness required by our military in Alaska,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Our legislation aims to provide greater access to the resources and support Alaska’s service members and their families deserve to thrive in our unique environment.”

Murkowski and Sullivan introduced the bill to the Senate on June 9 in honor of the birthday of the late US Rep. Don Young. Speier promoted accompanying legislation in the House of Representatives.

Sullivan also introduced the law as a Fiscal Year 2023 amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual law authorizing military funding.

The Arctic Warrior Act has a few ways forward. Several important provisions emerged from the Senate Armed Services Committee’s NDAA bill. If the provisions remain part of the NDAA, they could go into effect as early as September. The legislature, too, considers the law in its full form both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

“When you see the suicide rate in Alaska doubling in the past year if we don’t do everything we can to address this, shame on us,” Murkowski said.

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