Kansas National Guard captain resigns over concern about suicides
TOPEKA — A Kansas National Guard captain has submitted her resignation out of frustration over what she perceived as a lack of concern by guard leadership after a series of people associated with the Guard took their own lives in recent months.
Capt. Tara Fields, a behavioral health officer, said in her brigade two soldiers and a civilian employee took their own lives in July but her concerns have been met with complacency by guard officials, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported . Her resignation letter is expected to be final by the end of April.
Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli said the Kansas National Guard has had nine members take their own lives in the past five years, including three in the past 18 months. Fields said the deaths of a civilian employee and a man who had just been discharged were not included in the official numbers.
“This is not how we treat our soldiers,” Fields said. “I’m tired of watching it happen.”
Fields, of Leavenworth, said she became so concerned about the guard’s lack of response to her concern about a soldier in August that she “snapped” and thought of killing herself while being hospitalized for about a week. Now classified as a high-risk soldier, she said the experience made her more aware of how struggling soldiers are treated.
Crystal Edwards, of Junction City, said she doesn’t think the guard could have done more to prevent her husband, Kelly Edwards, taking his own life in July 2018. But she said she and her children received support only from a couple of people, including Fields.
“I have not seen one face, one letter, not one knock on the door (from her husband’s guard unit),” she said.
Tafanelli said the guard’s structure makes it challenging to address suicide because 80% of its 6,500 members are spread across the state and aren’t seen every day. The guard offers several programs for struggling members, including training, medical help and chaplain services and all soldiers and airmen undergo suicide awareness training when they enter the guard, he said.
“The sooner we can identify that somebody has a problem, but more importantly that they realize they have a problem and want help, I’m very confident we have programs in place that can help them and their families deal with that situation and we continually improve the programs,” he said.
The guard has a behavioral health working group that is part of a seven-state initiative. The pilot project, a collaboration with the Veterans Administration that includes a military-civilian team of experts, will develop plans unique to each state to address the problem, said state chaplain Terry Williams.
In March, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced a bill to improve access to mental health services for guard and reservist members. Currently members undergo annual health assessments but follow-up care usually is their responsibility.
“Unfortunately, many National Guardsmen and Reservists struggle to receive mental health care when they are not deployed or drilling,” Moran said. “This legislation will remove existing barriers to care for National Guardsmen and Reservists by allowing them to access readjustment counseling at VA Medical Centers and through VA mental health services.”
Fields said she would like to see better tracking for high-risk soldiers and more support for members who are leaving the guard. She also suggests placing behavioral health officers directly in units and a review of whether existing policies are being followed.
“The stakes are high,” Fields said. “We can do better than this.”