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The General Who Went to War On Suicide

A commander with his own history of depression defied military norms to stop a rash of suicides on his base. It worked. So why did the Army abandon his approach?

This story was co-published with Politico Magazine.

On the evening of July 19, 2010, Major General Dana Pittard, the new commander of Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, got a call from the base’s 24-hour duty officer. A SWAT team had been sent to the house of a young sergeant named Robert Nichols. Nichols was inside with a gun, threatening to kill himself.

Pittard arrived at the sergeant’s home just in time to see the soldier step out of the house, put the gun to his chest and fire. Neighbors and police crowded the street, but Pittard was the only officer from the Army base at the scene. He went home, where his boxes were still packed from his move 10 days before, feeling disturbed and helpless.

Nichols was the first of Pittard’s soldiers who died under his command at Fort Bliss. Others followed. A soldier from Fort Bliss’s 11th Air Defense Artillery brigade, which had recently returned from a tour in the Middle East, committed suicide. Another from the same brigade soon overdosed on prescription drugs.

The rash of deaths caught Pittard off guard. He knew that suicide was a growing concern for the military, which had spent millions of dollars to tackle the crisis and had issued dozens of reports — including a 350-page study that called suicides and deaths linked to high-risk behavior an “Army-wide problem.” But going in Pittard hadn’t planned to focus on the issue. That changed quickly. With suicides mounting at his base, a sprawling complex of 30,000 personnel larger than Rhode Island, he realized he wanted to make stopping what he saw as preventable deaths a top priority.

He conferred with the brigade commanders. Then, he told his sergeant major, only half in jest, that they should put a moratorium on death at the base. “People laughed,” says Pittard, “but I said, ‘no, seriously, let’s look at the roots and causes and do all we can to make it preventable.’”

His solution had the hallmarks of a commander confronted with a stubborn enemy: decisive action and situational adaptability. Pittard aggressively expanded mental health services at the base. He increased the number of mental health staff, created new social spaces and nighttime services, treatment for substance abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And Pittard made the services available to all soldiers — whether or not there was any reason to believe they were at risk of killing themselves — because he believed everyone was vulnerable to suicide. It was a position that put him at odds with commonly held views in the Army, which tends to regard suicide as something that only a small number of abnormal soldiers are at risk of trying.

His belief was rooted in a personal struggle. He later made public, in a radically un-Army-like moment, something that could have seriously jeopardized a career that some say was destined for the upper echelons of the military: that he had sought mental health care for depression. People who worked at the fort say that Pittard’s openness made it easier for soldiers to seek treatment. “I admired him sharing that story,” said Jamie Spanski, a staff sergeant who was stationed at Fort Bliss from 2012 until she left the Army in 2015. “No matter who you are or what rank you are, we’re all just human beings and sometimes you need help.”

And his efforts seemed to work. In 2010, Fort Bliss had 12 suicides, according to published media reports. The next year there were seven. In 2012, when the suicide rate for the Army as a whole peaked at 29.9 deaths per 100,000 people — Fort Bliss had five. It was the lowest suicide rate of any major Army installation in the world. The Defense Department touted Pittard’s accomplishments in press releases and internally; the Pentagon still highlights Fort Bliss’s example as one of the military’s most successful prevention programs.

Experts say the initiatives Pittard implemented at Fort Bliss demonstrate exactly the types of programs required for the Army to turn back its high rate of suicide. But four years after Pittard was transferred, many of the reforms he installed at Fort Bliss have been discontinued, and the base’s suicide rate has climbed again. And the high-ranking officials who pronounced suicide an Army-wide crisis — and who recognized Pittard for his success — haven’t adopted his approach.

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, the vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, called Pittard’s services a “model program.” But, she added, “these things have to be continued to be effective.”

Military suicides used to be rare. Throughout the 20th century, the suicide rate among active-duty service members was lower than the population at large. But after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the numbers began to climb. In 2006, for the first time, the Army’s suicide rate, routinely the highest among the branches of the armed services, surpassed that of the national population. By 2010, suicide had become a military crisis. That year, there were 163 suicides in the Army, an 87-percent increase from five years before.

It is a population that is especially vulnerable: many service members return from combat with some degree of post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury, both of which can contribute to depression and suicidal thoughts. Easy access to guns, which prove fatal much more often than other means of attempting suicide, may exacerbate the problem.

The Army struggled to respond to the rising number of suicides. Believing that the increase was connected to lax psychological standards for enlistment during the troop surge in Iraq, the Army reduced the number of waivers it gave for incoming soldiers with mental health conditions who might be at higher risk of suicide. Their approach, as described in the 350-page July 2010 report, framed the problem as largely caused by a small population of high-risk soldiers who “refuse help, use/distribute illicit drugs, and commit crimes.”

But the suicide rate continued to rise. Dr. Elspeth Ritchie, a colonel who retired in 2010 after five years as the head of behavioral health for the Army Surgeon General’s office, says the Army took what it saw as the simplest path, but hasn’t successfully tackled more difficult forms of prevention, like reducing the stigma around mental health care. In 2011, the Pentagon determined that it had 77 programs to improve service members’ responses to stress and trauma. “And there was no proof that any of them worked,” Ritchie says.

Major Gen. Dana Pittard, center, addresses a group of soldiers about suicide prevention and risks among troops stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, in 2013. During his last three years as commander of the base Pittard overhauled treatment of mental health problems, emphasizing close monitoring of troubled soldiers and getting them help immediately after indications that they are mulling suicide. “We’re really emphasizing getting help,” he said. (Photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Pittard thinks efforts to focus suicide prevention on just people deemed a high risk are misguided. “They think we can screen away the problem, and we can’t,” he says. “It’s just a different mentality when you say it’s anyone. It could be me, it could be you, it could be any of us. But I don’t think that philosophy has been bought by most of the senior leadership of the Army.”

Although Pittard wouldn’t have fit the Army’s profile of a high-risk soldier, he had more experience with the subject than his superiors knew. Several times in his life, he had considered suicide during bouts of depression. In junior high school, he says, he went through a period when he “just didn’t want to be around anymore.”

Pittard says he never thought about suicide while in combat or at West Point. Both were stressful environments where he felt he was expected to fail — in Iraq because of the difficulty of the mission, and at West Point because he was one of the few black cadets.  “I didn’t want to give people the satisfaction,” he says. “Whatever enemy we’re fighting, they’re going to have to kill me.”

But he wonders if his time in Iraq left him too comfortable with death, even numb to it. On April 29, 2004, north of Baghdad, an IED intended for Pittard exploded moments after his truck passed by, hitting the Humvee behind him and killing 20-year-old Specialist Martin Kondor. The soldier was one of thousands to serve under Pittard during the war, but Pittard can still recall Kondor’s name, hometown — York, Pennsylvania — and the date of the bombing. He says details like these stick in his mind. “Stuff like that kind of haunts me.”

Suicides haunt him, too. One of the soldiers in his brigade in Iraq committed suicide, alone in his room with the door locked. He didn’t leave a note. “We all lived so close together,” Pittard recalls. “To this day, I’m not sure why.”

After Kondor’s death, Pittard says, there came a point when he felt sure that he was going to be killed in Iraq. He says he stopped worrying about his safety, a feeling he described as “empowering” and “liberating.”

“Of course I thought about my family, but I knew they’d be taken care of. They just wouldn’t have me physically there,” says Pittard.

Although Pittard insists he didn’t feel suicidal, Dr. Ritchie says that the fatalism he experienced is common among soldiers and often results in increased risk taking — driving too fast or drinking too much. In those cases, she says, it can lead to suicide.

Soldiers who have deployed multiple times, like Pittard, are most at risk when they get home. Pittard returned from Iraq in August 2007, and was stationed in California. In 2009, he moved to Virginia, where he was named deputy commander of the agency that runs the Army’s training programs. It was here that he sought psychological counseling. At first, he went with his family, and the purpose of the visits was to help one of his sons. Then, he started going alone. For the first time in his life, he wanted to talk to someone about his depression.

Dana Pittard and his personal security detail conduct a search of an area outside Baqubah, Iraq, believed to be the origin of a mortar attack in 2004. (Photo: DOD)

One evening in early 2010, driving on the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge over the James River on his way home from work, he had visions of crashing his car over the short cement guardrail and into the water 20 feet below. It was the nearest he’d ever come to suicide.

At the time, Pittard didn’t tell anyone in the Army that he was going to counseling. He was living off-base, and he went to a private psychologist, not a military doctor. “I wasn’t concerned that anyone would find out,” says Pittard, “but I didn’t think anyone would ever find out.”

Soldiers, especially commanders of Pittard’s stature, typically do not speak publicly about considering suicide. Studies have found a tendency among soldiers and veterans to mask their suicidal feelings — to “put on the face,” as one soldier told a group of researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs — out of fear they will be ostracized or their career will suffer.

They have good reason to be concerned. Some Department of Defense policies still create career penalties for people who seek mental health care. The deployment-eligibility requirements for Central Command and Africa Command, for example, “disqualify or require waivers for individuals who have received a mental or behavioral health diagnosis.” That culture of silence extends to the top leadership of the military. In July, Major General John Rossi, a former neighbor of Pittard’s, became the highest-ranked soldier ever to take his own life. For months, the Army refused to acknowledge that his death was a suicide.

“I just think the Army has difficulty with this, like you must have done something wrong,” Pittard says. “The Army thinks of suicidal people as deviants, but most people have suicidal ideation.”

Perhaps not most, but the view that many people have suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives enjoys broad support in medical literature. In 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that almost 4 percent of all adults, and more than 7 percent of people aged 18-25, a group over-represented in the armed services, had thought seriously about suicide in the past year.

Pittard welcomed the news of his transfer to Fort Bliss. The time in Virginia had been difficult, and he was eager to take command of his new base. He’d recently been promoted to major general, the Army’s two-star rank, and his prospects for further advancement looked bright, especially because commanding Fort Bliss is often a springboard for a third star. The base was much larger than any installation he had previously run — three times the size of California’s Fort Irwin, his last command. The desert landscape around El Paso resembles Afghanistan, and Pittard was envisioning a massive training ground, the biggest in the Army, where he could bring in artillery to simulate a war zone. “Like they were back in Iraq,” he says.

Fort Bliss also reminded Pittard of his youth. Although he was born in Japan, Pittard had spent most of his childhood in El Paso while his father was stationed at the base as an air defense soldier. He thought of the city, with its ruddy mountains and low, sweeping skyline, as his hometown. Pittard had nearly quit the Army in the mid-1980s, five years out of West Point, after seeing white peers he felt were less qualified getting promotions for which he was passed over. “I thought I wouldn’t get a chance,” he says. At Fort Bliss, he finally had his opportunity to lead.

It didn’t go the way he expected.

Fort Bliss already had some specialized mental health services when Pittard arrived.

Dr. John Fortunato, who left the base in 2010, had started an intensive six-month program for soldiers with significant post-traumatic stress. The program, called the Warrior Resilience Center and run through the nearby William Beaumont Army Medical Center, was not constrained by macho military culture. Along with standard psychological counseling, it treated soldiers’ trauma with yoga classes, art therapy, and an alternative-medicine technique called Reiki. “It was the one place probably in the entire U.S. Army where they could cry,” says Fortunato, though participants did not use that word. “They called it ‘leaking.’ They were so protective of their masculinity that they couldn’t say they were crying.”

Fort Bliss was also among the bases that adopted a suicide prevention training program called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST. Launched in 1998 and brought to Fort Bliss in 2009, the two-day interactive workshops teach soldiers how to identify and intervene with friends who might be at risk of taking their own lives.

Left: Fort Bliss in 2014. Right: Spc. Thomas E. Malmborg receives a commander’s coin from Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard in 2010 for intervening after recognizing suicidal intentions from his battle buddy. (Photo: AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca and DOD)

Confronted with the spate of suicides, Pittard rapidly expanded the existing services while implementing several of his own. Among Pittard’s first projects was bringing all the base’s suicide prevention efforts together, creating a physical campus called the Wellness Fusion Center. All incoming soldiers took tests to assess their psychological fitness. The objective was to identify newcomers at risk of suicide. The behavioral health staff of the fort quadrupled to 160, according to Pittard and Dr. Leonard Gruppo, who ran the Wellness Fusion Center at the time. Commanders were instructed to shift the composition of units to embed social workers and psychologists in every brigade, making them more approachable for soldiers. Noticing that most suicides at the fort were happening late at night when there were few social spaces for soldiers or places where they could talk about what they were experiencing, Pittard created a 24-hour gym and chaplain services.

“It was a way that you could seek help and someone would be there,” he says. “Let’s make sure we’re up, that we’re not just talking to our soldiers at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, that somebody’s available.”

At the advice of Fort Bliss’s ASIST Coordinator Michelle Wiggins, Pittard ordered a huge increase in the base’s use of ASIST workshops, ultimately reaching 30 percent of the fort’s soldiers, more than six times the Army-wide rate. In 2012, the base won an award from LivingWorks, the company that designed the ASIST program, for training more soldiers than any other Army base. Fort Bliss remains the only American military installation to have ever received the award.

Gruppo says he was responsible for implementing the programs, but the ideas that drove them were all Pittard’s. “We saw the number of people seeking help skyrocket,” he says. “There was a cause and effect relationship between what he did and the dramatic drop in what had been a longstanding number of deaths per year.”

Though the suicides decreased, they did not stop completely.

On January 18, 2012, Pittard attended a memorial service for a soldier who had hanged himself on Christmas Day by his family’s tree. He left the service stewing about the effect on the soldier’s young daughters. “They lost their father,” he remembers thinking, “and they’ll probably lose Christmas.” As he left, a staffer informed him that another soldier at the base had just committed suicide. Pittard felt the progress he’d made was slipping away.

The morning after the memorial, still feeling bitter and on edge, Pittard was told by one of the fort’s public affairs officers that he needed to write his weekly blog post. He channeled his frustration into his writing.

“I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act,” Pittard wrote. “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”

That May, details of the post were reported by The Atlantic. Condemnation was swift and widespread. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time and a longtime friend of Pittard, called his words “unfortunate and extremely inappropriate.” Congressman Tom Rooney said the post showed “a complete lack of understanding about the struggles that our troops and veterans with mental illness are facing.” Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist and suicide prevention expert who founded Give an Hour, an organization that coordinates free mental health care for service members, said that “soldiers who are thinking about suicide can’t do what the general says: They can’t suck it up, they can’t let it go, they can’t just move on.”

Although her comments were widely interpreted as criticism, Van Dahlen now says that much of the blowback against Pittard was unfair. Even at the time, she saw the blog post as a normal reaction to the anger and hurt that people often feel when someone they care about commits suicide, she says.

“Here was a man who was grappling and wrestling with this,” Van Dahlen says. “You can’t save everyone, and I don’t think he knew that.”

The criticism of Pittard as insensitive to his soldiers’ emotional struggles would come to be seen in a different light when he once again spoke bluntly about suicide.

On June 6, 2012, in a short paragraph on his blog published on the website of Fort Bliss’s newspaper and open to all soldiers at the base, Pittard revealed something about himself that no one knew besides his family and counselor: He had sought mental health care. “Asking for help is not weakness — it is a sign of strength,” he wrote. “It takes an amazing amount of courage and strength to take the first step; individuals should be encouraged and commended, not condemned.”

Later, in speeches to his soldiers, he opened up even more about his recurring depression. He told them he had considered suicide too, hoping that doing so would destigmatize seeking treatment. He talked about himself, he says, despite his earlier concerns about the Army finding out about his mental health care, because he didn’t want his soldiers to see him as another commander who talked about stopping suicide but wasn’t personally invested in it. “That’s not saving lives,” he says. “I thought I had to be honest to be credible.”

Pittard didn’t discuss his plans with anyone before publicizing his struggles with suicide. “I didn’t want to be talked out of it,” he says. Afterward, he tried not to think about how his actions might affect his career. Pittard had always been ambitious, but he realized that he’d already accomplished his goals: He was home in El Paso, commanding his father’s longtime base. “So I’m not going to be Chief of Staff of the Army,” he says he told himself at the time. “But I never wanted to be Chief of Staff of the Army.”

Pittard never heard from his superiors about his blog posts and speeches, but his soldiers responded. People who worked in mental health care at Fort Bliss during Pittard’s tenure say his personal messages about mental health care generated a cultural shift at the base.

“The things he said and did,” says a social worker who served at Fort Bliss while Pittard commanded the base, and who requested anonymity because she still works with the Army and wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, “allowed his subordinates, when they heard the word suicide, to go ‘Okay, I know this is important to General Pittard, I’m going to make it important to me.’”

A parade of top officials toured the base during Pittard’s tenure to see the programs he’d installed: Army Vice Chief of Staff Lloyd Austin; Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. President Barack Obama visited Fort Bliss in August 2012 to announce an expansion of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ mental health and suicide prevention services, and he asked for a briefing from Pittard on what Fort Bliss had done to reduce suicides.

Pittard chuckles when he reflects on the visit now. “President Obama said, ‘That’s great, we ought to do that for the whole nation,’” he recalls, “and then that was it. That was the end of it.” The Army, he says, held Fort Bliss up as an example, but didn’t accept the philosophy that guided his work there.

President Barack Obama addresses troops inside the 1st Aviation Support Battalion Hangar in 2012 at Fort Bliss, Texas. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages)

Pittard cannot shake the feeling that the post for which he was criticized had more lasting impact than all the good he accomplished. Simply put, he feels misunderstood. When he had considered suicide, he says, what helped him was thinking about his responsibility to stay alive for his family.

“It’s my duty,” Pittard says. “Duty means a lot to soldiers, so if you couch it in those terms, that it’s your duty not only to yourself but to your fellow soldiers, your family and loved ones and friends, not to take your own life, to seek help. That was the idea behind it.”

He’s also still stung by the rush to condemn the post, especially by General Dempsey, who had been Pittard’s direct superior in a previous position and had promoted him to major general. There was talk among Army leadership about taking one of Pittard’s stars. “The only thing that saved me was that we had the lowest suicide rate in the Army,” he says.

Pittard’s career never entirely recovered after the blowback from his post. In early 2012, the Army Inspector General opened an investigation into a contract that two classmates of his from West Point received from Fort Bliss for a renewable energy project, part of a goal of Pittard’s upon arriving at Bliss to make the base energy self-sufficient. Pittard was frozen in position by the investigation: he couldn’t retire or be promoted.

Two years is a typical tenure for a Fort Bliss commander, but Pittard lobbied for a third year at the base so his sons could graduate from high school in El Paso. In May 2013, his time was up, and he left the fort to become deputy commander of the Third Army in Kuwait. He had wanted to retire when he left Fort Bliss, but was forced to stay in the military because of the ongoing investigation.

The best gauge of Pittard’s efforts may be what happened after he left Fort Bliss. Pittard was replaced by Major General Sean MacFarland, who has since been promoted to Lieutenant General and now commands Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas.

MacFarland, who declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed about his suicide prevention work at Fort Bliss, quickly rolled back many of the programs Pittard had installed. In July 2013, citing cost-effectiveness, he announced the closure of late-night hours at the gym. The on-duty chaplain’s hours were later reduced, too.

When a Fort Bliss soldier killed himself in his apartment in early August, MacFarland’s statement was brief and didn’t mention suicide — a departure from Pittard’s approach of using the commander’s blog to address the subject directly. MacFarland ended the blog the following month.

The number of ASIST workshops at the base has dropped by more than 20 percent, according to numbers collected by LivingWorks, the creator of ASIST, although Fort Bliss still trains more soldiers with the program than any other Army installation. The Warrior Resilience Center was closed last year and rolled into the work of another William Beaumont facility called the Intensive Outpatient Program. In addition to PTSD work, the facility also treats people for depression, drug abuse, bipolar disorder, and a range of other serious psychological problems.

Since Pittard’s departure, the fear of seeking mental health treatment has returned, people at the fort say. One social worker in El Paso, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized by the Army to speak with the media, says that soldiers from Fort Bliss often come to her instead of seeking help at the base because of concerns they will suffer professionally or socially.

Commanders might tell them to call Military OneSource, a mental health hotline, and then hassle them for doing so, the social worker says. “They make it seem like they should just nut up and move on and not worry about their symptoms.” The social worker also says soldiers don’t trust that clinical notes about their mental health won’t go on their record and affect their career. “It’s not as private in their mind as the HIPAA laws make it sound,” she says.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Longoria, a plans officer at Fort Bliss from October 2013 through 2014, says he sought counseling because he had a hard time adjusting when he came to the fort from deployment in Afghanistan. But, he says, he only sought services off-base. “I wanted to avoid a stigma,” Longoria says. “That was a big consideration.”

Left: Dana Pittard bows his head for prayer during the dedication ceremony for the 1st Armored at Fort Bliss in 2012. Right: Pittard briefs Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey at a military facility on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, in 2013. (Photos: DOD)

There’s no consensus on how to calculate military suicides by installation. A base may have both active duty and reservist soldiers, as well as soldiers stationed there but deployed elsewhere and suicide numbers vary depending on which populations are counted. Numbers provided by Fort Bliss in response to a Freedom of Information Act request do not match those reported in news stories, including Department of Defense publications, but both sources show that suicides increased after Pittard left — even as the number of soldiers stationed at the base declined.

“I think he was just typical of the prevailing thought in the Army,” Pittard says of his successor’s decision to roll back suicide prevention programs at Fort Bliss. Pittard describes himself as a visionary open to novel ideas, a self-assessment he bases on a personality test, the Myers-Briggs. Other top commanders weren’t like him, he says. “As an organization, the Army is very conservative. You don’t take risks, you’re just good at what you do.”

He added that part of the lingering problem in the Army is that commanders don’t face any consequences for high suicide rates, which may be exacerbated by the lack of transparency about suicide levels at individual bases.

Both the Fort Bliss garrison and the William Beaumont Army Medical Center declined requests to make someone involved in the fort’s mental health or suicide prevention programs available for an interview. In an email, the manager of Fort Bliss’s Suicide Prevention Program says the fort’s overall philosophy of suicide prevention now is to “synchronize and integrate key Army programs focusing on building resilience.” The fort’s press office declined to answer questions about mental health staffing levels, the closure of the Wellness Fusion Campus, psychological assessments for incoming soldiers, and the percentage of soldiers who receive ASIST training.

On January 12, 2017, a 23-year-old Fort Bliss soldier named John Rodriguez died while on deployment in Kuwait. Kuwait’s Interior Ministry reported that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but the Army says that the death is still under investigation. At the time, there was no mention of Rodriguez’ death in the Fort Bliss Bugle, the base’s newspaper that once ran Pittard’s blog. The current commander of Fort Bliss did not mention suicide in a brief statement to local press. On January 19, in the Bugle’s only mention of Rodriguez since his death, the paper ran a debt collection notice against him.

The Army’s suicide rate has leveled off since its peak in 2012, when the service’s active duty population had 165 suicides and a rate of nearly 30 suicides per 100,000 soldiers. As of the end of September (the most recent month for which data is available) the Army was on track to see 124 suicides for the year, still higher than the civilian rate and not improved since 2013.

In 2012, the Army released a new strategic plan, which called for some preventative services to be offered universally to all soldiers, recognizing, as Pittard did, that soldiers need intervention training and support whether or not they appear to be a suicide risk. The Army is also finishing development of a new suicide intervention training called Engage, and officials say it showed positive results during a pilot program at Fort Campbell last year.

Some of the efforts that Pittard put in place at Fort Bliss have been replicated by commanders at other Army posts. Recently, the Army finished a three-year project to embed mental health staff in all combat units, and a spokesperson says the Army has roughly doubled the number of behavioral health providers in the last seven years. Fort Hood, General MacFarland’s current post, started a PTSD program based on the Warrior Resilience Center.

But most of the military’s prevention efforts have continued to target high-risk soldiers. Much of the Army’s attention and money in recent years has focused on a massive data project called STARRS — the Study to Assess Risk and Resiliency in Service members — that ran from 2009 through June 2015. Initial analysis of the survey data has identified soldiers at high risk of suicide with greater accuracy than ever before. Even so, less than one-half of 1 percent of those identified as being at great risk actually take their own life. But the Army has not yet initiated programs to help those soldiers, concerned about the stigma of targeting them for special treatment.

A soldier walks on base in the early morning hours when many of the troops perform personal training exercises. (Photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Harkavy-Friedman says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has turned away from approaches based on identifying high-risk populations, but for a different reason than the one that has stymied the Army: There are too many suicides committed by people who wouldn’t be considered high risk by most current metrics.

By building up mental health resources for everyone, Pittard sidestepped the stigma that’s made the Army hesitant to act on its research. He says the focus on identifying risky soldiers comes from the mistaken belief that suicide is something that happens only to a small group of troubled people.

“If it’s suicide, knowing that it can happen to anyone, it’s like you’re guarding a castle wall and making sure that no one gets through the door,” he says. “But it doesn’t help.”

In April 2015, Pittard received a formal letter of reprimand from the Pentagon for his involvement in the energy contract awarded to his West Point classmates, and he quietly returned from Kuwait, preparing for retirement. He went back to his previous post in Virginia, where he’d had his closest encounters with suicide, while he waited for an Army review board to decide whether to strip him of one of his stars before he retired.

In June, word of his reprimand became public. Pittard says he was in an interview for a position at Bank of America when he found out. Someone handed his interviewer a note that news of his censure was on the front page of the Washington Post. Pittard says the day his reprimand was published, a date he recalls precisely and often, was the worst of his adult life.

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“I had a thirty-four-year war against bureaucrats and process,” says Pittard of his time in the Army. “With the investigation, was that another nail? Maybe.”

“But I don’t know, I was too busy trying to solve problems to care,” he added. “We worked hard to really try to save lives. And I feel like we did for that snapshot in time.”

Since leaving the Army, Pittard hasn’t felt depressed or considered suicide. He always feels invigorated when he has a lot to do. Now, he’s working to turn around the finances of a major transmission manufacturer he joined as vice president after his retirement, and he’s writing a book about one of his tours in Iraq. He competes in triathlons regularly. The constant motion has kept his thoughts in check.

“But I’m sure it could come back,” Pittard says. He asks me if I think it’s strange that he hasn’t thought about suicide since he left the Army. He’s usually sure of himself; it’s the first time I’ve ever heard his voice shake.

He told his soldiers five years ago that everyone considers suicide, but he still doesn’t know if his feelings are normal.

“I always wonder what’s going to happen after a couple of years when I’ve finished these challenges,” he says. “I’ll have to find new ones.”

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741-741.

Portrait by Harold Lee Miller for The Trace.