FAIRBANKS, Alaska. (KTVF) Major General Peter Andrysiak, U.S. Army Alaska Commanding General, sat down with other Fort Wainwright and U.S. Army Alaska leaders to speak with the media about the EPICON report.
“That EPICON team was a great partner. That EPICON team fed this headquarters a lot of information,” said Andrysiak.
Andrysiak says back in August, a task force was deployed to look at the issue. “What you find that comes in as part of this study is a lot of data, and what you try to sift through the data to [and] figure out really what it means. Because in the end, we’re obviously all committed to solving the problem, trying to look at what data is specific to Fairbanks. I’m responsible for all of U.S. Army Alaska, [and] what you see in Fairbanks in numbers are different from the numbers you see down in JBER. So it’s trying to understand what are the contributing factors to that,” said Andrysiak.
The task force was under the leadership of Colonel Jeremy Johnson, U.S. Army Alaska Command Surgeon, and Andrysiak says the task force was heavily resourced by U.S Army Alaska and the Army Enterprise. The task force gave their top ten recommendations they wanted to work on right away. Andrysiak says they started working on initiatives as soon as they were there to deliver on.
“Some things we absolutely can affect internally. There are things that we have to do internally on a regular basis ,and go back and make those adjustments. Some of those require some external support, and so those take a little bit of time -- and the reality is some of the challenges we have are going to take years to deliver,” said Andrysiak.
Some of the challenges soldiers reported in the public health survey as part of the EPICON were isolation, stigma, limited resources, poor coping skills, problems with alcohol, and poor quality of life.
Andrysiak says a ‘quality of life taskforce’ was brought to Fort Wainwright a couple weeks ago. “As we started identifying things that were outside of U.S. Army Alaska’s resourcing or control, and we started asking for more and more help, they realized they had to put a bigger team in here that had specialties. That robust team came in here, and has delivered a number of initiatives,” said Andrysiak. He went on to talk about his trip to Washington D.C. where he met with Army leadership, Senator Dan Sullivan, Senator Lisa Murkowski, and Congressman Don Young.
“The message that needs to be very clear is that everybody’s committed to this -- across the entire Army. So this is not just an Alaska problem. I think we understand it’s a national issue. When you look at U.S. Army Alaska, the incidences are higher here -- and so the priority for U.S. Army Alaska right now is getting after some of the challenges we have in Fairbanks, and the things that we can influence here in the near term,” said Andrysiak.
When referring to the idea of poor quality of life on Fort Wainwright, Andrysiak says it has been on their radar for a while. “You don’t just build overnight, and the resourcing takes a little bit of time to get it prioritized too.”
Andrysiak was concerned about how the information on the issue of suicide is getting out to the public. “Alaska is a phenomenal place to live, there’s a lot to do here, the interior is very different from where I actually live, down in Anchorage. Because of the narrative, everybody’s super sensitive to this, and everybody’s involved. I think that’s kind of permeated everything that goes on up here -- and what we want to try to do is get out in the narrative [that] it’s a great place to live, a lot of good things going that you can do now, let alone the things that are coming.”
Andrysiak says some of the challenges seen in Fairbanks are consistent with challenges seen across the army -- such as relationship issues, financial issues, and legal trouble.
“Everybody wants to belong to a team that has a common purpose and a common understanding. So I think the key elements to this [are] there’s this idea that I want to belong to something. Soldiers join the Army because they want to belong to a team ,and they want to know that they provide value -- and I will tell you that extends beyond just joining the Army team... they want to have the same thing with a family. They want to belong to a family unit, and they also want to feel like they provide value to that unit,” said Andrysiak. He went on to say that when a soldier may feel like they no longer belong or provide value, there can be risk or challenges associated with that.
Challenges soldiers face that are unique to Alaska are the ideas of isolation and financial burden of living in the state. If there are not enough resources to support a soldier's family members' specific needs, in some cases those soldiers will be asked to continue on to their duty location without their family, creating isolation. Andrysiak added that just living in Alaska can create isolation, as it is harder to travel to the Lower 48 to visit family. He says these are some of the challenges that leadership is looking at -- how they can make changes to alleviate some of the challenges soldiers face uniquely in Alaska.
Col. Constance Jenkins, commander of MEDDAC-Alaska, said there are ongoing discussions about how to recruit medical providers up to Fairbanks to help with a shortage of specialty providers since this shortage makes it difficult to bring families with specific challenges up to Fairbanks.
Andrysiak said that there a number of projects already being worked on to improve quality of life on Fort Wainwright. “Whether it’s transportation around the installation, investment in the dining facilities, more cooks in the dining facilities, getting TV’s and Wi-Fi up in there... all that stuff is moving along to include the things that are being done in the barracks,” said Andrysiak.
U.S. Army Garrison Alaska Garrison Commander, Colonel Christopher Ruga, says they have several barracks currently in renovation. Another project is to put food kiosks in one barracks on the north side of Fort Wainwright that is separated from the dining facility. That should be in place by March. Leadership is also working to get blackout curtains and light boxes to help soldiers and families with the dramatic changes in daylight.
“In the end, what really is going to make a difference in the lives of any individual? I don’t care whether it’s in the military or not. For the military, we have the chain of command, so we have that supervisor. [That] is a key aspect, that battle buddy, that is a good friend that has a responsibility and a duty to his friend. Then there is the connection with the family. All that surrounds the soldier that’s at the center of this. They all have to make sure that we have a mutual trust... to make sure that if anyone sees anything, that they’re sharing it with the right person to make sure that soldier will receive help... [that if] these risk factors manifest themselves, that we get them to the help that’s available -- and there’s a spectrum of help that’s available. To your point about behavioral health, some of the concern is that it’s going to end my career -- and the reality is it doesn’t, but there’s another place to start. Whether it be a military family life consultant, a chaplain; or through army OneSource on the outside, where you can make a phone call and get connected with a social worker... that’s going to help you out,” said Andrysiak.
Andrysiak wants the public to know that they are committed to working on the issue. “Whether it’s U.S. Army Alaska, First Corps at JBLM, U.S. Army Pacific, all the way up to the Army Enterprise, they're all in on making sure that we make a difference in the lives of all those soldiers, and family members for that matter,” said Andrysiak.
He continued by saying “How we communicate this becomes very important. This is why we’re always trying to get the word out everywhere we go. We’re talking to soldiers, trying to get feedback. Every one of these things is tragic, but I will tell you is that there are a lot of folks out there making a difference every day, trying to protect the soldier. We see it all the time, a lot of heroes out there that are picking up on things, and a lot of great things are happening. The challenge is this obviously rises to a level where it overshadows every bit of that, and we’re trying to make sure that we’re doing all the right things all the time for folks."
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
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