Army investigations detail warning signs before soldier suicides - NBC12 - Richmond, VA News

Army investigations detail warning signs before soldiers' suicides

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

A Channel 4 I-Team investigation into soldier suicides found cases in which family members and Army investigators say the military didn't do enough to stop the soldiers' deaths.

At just 21 years old, Lana Lovely is a widow. Her husband, Pfc. Michael Lovely, died not on the battlefield but in his own backyard. The Army's investigation into his suicide shows there were plenty of warnings he was at risk to hurt himself before he died.

"For a while there, I spent all day every day thinking I wish it would've been me who passed instead of him," Lana Lovely said. "I definitely believe [the military] should have done more."

Through the Freedom of Information Act, the Channel 4 I-Team obtained 17 suicide investigations completed by the Army to determine whether each Fort Campbell soldier died in the line of duty. The 17 soldiers died in 2011 and 2012. The Channel 4 I-Team's review found that in five suicides, there were warnings the soldier may be at risk in the days and even hours before they died, including Michael Lovely.

The Army's investigation shows Lovely was considered a "high-risk" soldier due to at least one documented previous suicide attempt. The week Michael Lovely died, leaders at Fort Campbell put him on a 72-hour "cool down period" because of a domestic incident with his wife. The Army investigation said, "PFC Lovely departed the barracks at precisely the 72-hour mark to depart for home. No one checked to make sure the cool-down period was effective or discussed the reintegration ... to make sure it would be successful."

The investigation shows that Michael Lovely left as soon as the cool-down period ended and texted several people he planned to kill himself. When no one took action, he followed through. The Army investigator wrote that the lack of response to Michael Lovely's suicide threats, and "the lack of controlled release/reintegration by unit leadership" combined to "contribute significantly" to Michael Lovely's death.

The Army report went on to say that immediately following Michael Lovely's death, battery commanders received more specific instructions for how to handle domestic violence incidents and cool-down periods in the future. The Channel 4 I-Team learned an unidentified colleague of Michael Lovely's filed a complaint alleging his leadership failed to protect him before his suicide. An Army inspector general report obtained by the I-Team said the colleague's allegations were unfounded.

Michael Lovely's mother told the Channel 4 I-Team she believes the Army did all it could to help her son.

However, another family told the Channel 4 I-Team they believe the military failed to protect their fallen soldier.

Spc. Jonathan Williams was under criminal investigations in the days before his suicide, but never charged. The Army's investigative file shows an email sent to his superiors by an investigators cautioning that criminal investigations are inherently stressful and suspects often show suicidal or homicidal tendencies. The investigative file goes on to note everyone who interacted with Williams thought he did not seem suicidal, so no one placed him on suicide watch. He was found dead in his barracks the day after that email warning was sent.

Valerie Hudson, Williams' mother, told the Channel 4 I-Team she believes her son was innocent of the criminal allegations.

"They never did protect him whatsoever," Hudson said. "They never checked on him. They just put him back in the barracks and 24 hours later he was dead."

The Army investigator who conducted Williams' line of duty investigation wrote that supervisors were not negligent in Williams' death because his behavior did not indicate he was suicidal. The investigator recommended commanders review their procedures regarding behavioral health assessments in light of his suicide. That recommendation is largely redacted in the report provided to Channel 4, as are other details of the criminal investigation throughout the report, which may suggest it specifically addressed behavioral health assessments of soldiers under criminal investigation.

Three others cases reviewed by the Channel 4 I-Team involved soldiers who were either on suicide watch or hospitalized in the day before their deaths. The Channel 4 I-Team and The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper worked together to attempt to reach family members of each of the 17 soldiers and Channel 4 agreed not to release names without the family's blessing.

One soldier was hospitalized at Fort Campbell for a suicide attempt by prescription drug overdose, and what happened next drew the strongest rebuke from any Army investigator in any of the 17 reports.

The Army investigation shows that during the hospitalization, the soldier indicated to a doctor that he wanted to hurt himself, which the doctor informed a member of his chain of command. Nevertheless, the soldier was discharged from the hospital the next day without being put on suicide watch and hours after that he killed himself by overdosing on drugs. The investigator wrote that a commander "failed to recognize his high-risk behavior" and the overdose "should have alerted the chain of command to take necessary precautions that might have made a successful intervention."

The soldier was found dead in his barracks the day after he was discharged from the hospital. The investigation shows that just a month after the soldier's death, the Blanchfield Army Community Hospital released a new policy to "tighten the gaps that may have previously existed" involving soldiers admitted for prescription medication overdoses. The policy says those soldiers should be considered for referral for psychiatric treatment and medications in their possession should be "reconciled and discarded or stored and returned to the soldier as appropriate."

The Army investigator who conducted the line of duty investigation delivered seven separate recommendations for changes in light of this soldier's suicide. One of those said a commander "should have used better judgment and should have arrived at a course of action for how to safeguard [the soldier] considering his demonstrated high-risk behavior."

Two other soldiers died just hours after being released from suicide watch. In one case, the soldier's wife reported he made a suicide threat. A relative talked to the Channel 4 I-Team about speaking with him during the suicide watch period, which he described as "like being in jail without having committed any crime, no bed and being watched 24/7."

According to the Army's investigation, the soldier was released from suicide watch and spent the night with supervisors. After a sergeant "talked extensively" with him and drove him home, the soldier packed his belongings and drove to another state, where he drove into a lake and died. In that case, the Army investigator recommended every soldier be given suicide prevention training because there was no record of that soldier receiving any such training. The investigator also recommended the establishment of new standard operating procedures in the Blanchfield Emergency Behavioral Health program. The relative who spoke with Channel 4 said the family does not blame the military for what happened.

Another Army report detailed the long-standing mental health issues of a troubled, "high-risk" soldier, who killed himself the day after being released from suicide watch. The soldier, who had reportedly been suicidal since he was 13 years old, met with superiors to receive discipline for a prior infraction and hanged himself a few hours later. In that case, the Army investigator wrote the soldier should have been identified as "high risk" months earlier than he was, and noted that records of the soldier's mental health counseling were not always completed.

Fort Campbell and the Army did not provide comment about specific cases beyond the line of duty reports. But Fort Campbell did invite the Channel 4 I-Team to a media roundtable to mark the opening of a new center designed to help soldiers deal with stress and meet with mental health experts.

During that media roundtable, chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley asked whether the Army should have made that center, and other suicide prevention measures, a priority years before it did.

"It's really hard to Monday morning quarterback after the Super Bowl. It's really hard to say," responded Col. Charles Hamilton, commander of the 101st Sustainment Brigade.

Hamilton went on to say high numbers of suicides across the military in recent years have changed the culture active duty soldiers are growing up in, and everyone from leadership on down is trained in strategies to recognize warning signs and prevent suicides.

"This is a fight we're going to win over time," Hamilton said.

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