Maj. Gen. Ken Kamper, Commanding General of the Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill, said Tuesday that the deaths of three soldiers between July and December 2020 are being investigated as suicides.
“Suicide is a very personal issue for me,” Kamper said in an interview Tuesday with The Lawton Constitution. “I’ve unfortunately got a lot of experience dealing with suicides, so this topic is very personal to me. I’ve never met a single family member who wouldn’t do anything to get their loved one back.”
Kamper said as a brigade commander during the height of the Iraq war, several soldiers connected to his command committed suicide. He said he personally met with the families of each soldier and that experience had a profound effect on him.
Since September Kamper said he has been holding value of life forums where he or Fort Sill Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen Burnley visit with soldiers to discuss the importance of leadership and the value each soldier has to their units and families as well as listen to the soldiers’ concerns.
The active-duty Army has seen a 30 percent increase in 2020 of deaths by suicide — from 88 deaths in 2019 to 114 by October 2020, according the Pentagon’s annual report on suicide. Kamper said on average Fort Sill sees two to three suicides per year.
The Army, in a joint statement published on army.mil on Oct. 1, 2020, by Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, said that COVID-19 had motivated the Army to boost mental health services for soldiers.
“The Army is committed to identifying and providing services and support to our teammates who may become vulnerable. In the face of additional stress of a pandemic, we are working to improve access to behavioral health care while enhancing our resilience training and stigma reduction efforts,” according to the statement.
Kamper says there is no easy, quick solution to preventing suicide, but believes that removing the stigma attached to seeking mental health is big step toward eliminating suicides. He also believes that a multi-prong, long-haul approach, utilizing several programs and initiatives that begin at the squad level, will help curb those numbers.
One of those programs designed by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston entitled, “This is My Squad” looks to build more cohesive teams throughout the U.S. Army while addressing challenges in the force and reemphasizing its cultural values. Kamper described the initiative as a way for soldiers at all levels to feel valued and important through unit cohesion.
Kamper said through the implementation of the “This is My Squad” initiative, he wants to see leaders under his command focus on developing deep inter-personnel connections at the lowest levels so they better know their fellow soldiers. By establishing a connection between those key individuals in their lives, soldiers establish what he and the Army call the ‘Golden Triangle’ around their people. Kamper used the example of the soldier being in the center, with their “battle buddy” and squad leader surrounding them to explain the concept of the triangle. He said when those connections are present, someone within that triangle will likely know if a fellow soldier is struggling.
Kamper offered to talk to any soldier struggling and contemplating suicide.
“Come talk to me,” Kamper said. “Come talk to Command Sgt. Maj. Burnley. No matter how bad things are, there is a way out. It may be a hard road, but we can get through it.”
Staff Sgt. Logan Carter, the most recent death being investigated, was a 27-year-old active duty service member at Fort Sill and was found dead at his off-post residence Dec. 6 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was assigned to 75th Field Artillery Brigade.
Spc. Simeon Funk, a 26-year-old active-duty service member, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the Fort Sill installation Sep. 22. He was assigned to the 31st Air Defense Brigade.
Warrant Officer Blake Munck, who was attending a professional development course on Fort Sill, was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his residence in Elgin on July 25 by his roommate.
Munck was assigned to 30th Air Defense Artillery Brigade and had just completed the Warrant Officer Basic Course this year. Munck had been stationed on Fort Sill, before attending warrant officer basic course, as an instructor in Bravo Battery, 3-6th Air Defense Artillery Regiment.
An attempted suicide was prevented by two 22-year-old trainees at Fort Sill on Sept. 3.
Pvts. Carlos Fontanez and Ari Till were promoted to E-2 after they stopped a fellow trainee from hanging himself one week into basic combat training.