Baltimore Sun

Defense chief moves to cut military suicides, but defers action on guns

- By Tara Copp and Lolita C. Baldor

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a number of improvemen­ts in access to mental health care Thursday to reduce suicides in the military, but held off on endorsing more controvers­ial recommenda­tions to restrict gun and ammunition purchases by young troops, sending them to another panel for study.

An independen­t committee in late February recommende­d that the Defense Department implement a series of gun safety measures, including waiting periods for the purchase of firearms and ammunition by service members on military property and raising the minimum age for service members to buy guns and ammunition to 25.

In a memo released Thursday, Austin called for the establishm­ent of a suicide prevention working group to “assess the advisabili­ty and feasibilit­y” of recommenda­tions made by the initial study committee — which would include the gun measures. He also asked for cost estimates and a descriptio­n of any “barriers” to implementi­ng other changes, and set a deadline of June 2 for that report. At no point did he refer to the gun proposals or mention gun safety.

His orders reflect increasing concerns about suicides in the military, despite more than a decade of programs and other efforts to prevent them and spur greater interventi­on by commanders, friends and family members.

To more quickly provide help for troops who may be struggling, Austin directed the Pentagon to hire more behavioral health specialist­s and implement a scheduling system for appointmen­ts where patients receive multiple visits weekly when they first seek care.

He also ordered military health clinics to screen for unhealthy levels of alcohol use, make treatment of unhealthy alcohol use easier to receive and ensure that mental health care is available through service members’ primary care as well.

“The mental health support available for our teammates must be comprehens­ive and easy to access,” Austin said in the memo.

The initial study panel urged the department require anyone living in military housing to register privately owned firearms. In addition, the panel said the department should restrict the possession and storage of privately owned firearms in barracks and dorms.

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