Washington, DC – Today, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, along with Senators Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the Don Young Arctic Warrior Act in both the House and Senate to address underlying factors that have contributed to a rise in suicides by military personnel throughout the Armed Forces and especially in Alaska, where the number of deaths by suicide by soldiers stationed in Alaska doubled between 2020 and 2021. Most of the provisions in the bill were included in the Military Personnel section of the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved by the subcommittee on Wednesday.
“I’ve spoken with many surviving family members of soldiers who died by suicide and just recently visited Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson with Sen. Sullivan to meet directly with leadership, junior enlisted soldiers, non-commissioned officers, military spouses, and behavioral health providers. Our trip made clear that Congress must act both to address stressors unique to Alaska as well as to improve access to behavioral health services throughout the military,” Chair Speier said. “The high cost of living, extreme weather, and crushing isolation from family and friends at home is particularly challenging for soldiers in Alaska. Worse yet, when they need help the most they face monthslong waits before they can meet with a behavioral health clinician. This national tragedy must end, and the Don Young Arctic Warrior Act will ensure our servicemembers get the help and assistance they need and deserve. I’m proud to have worked with Sens. Sullivan and Murkowski, as well as the late Rep. Don Young, on this bipartisan package and will fight to include it in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023.”
"Since coming to the Senate, ensuring Alaska's service members and their families are properly cared for has remained one of my highest priorities," Senator Sullivan said. "Alaska is home to thousands of military service members and more veterans per capita than any other state. The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act, which Senator Murkowski and I are introducing today—our late great congressman’s birthday—is the result of dozens of hours spent listening to soldiers and their families throughout our state, most recently alongside Congresswoman Speier, chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, who I want to thank again for her focus on Alaska military personnel and their families. It's no secret that training and living in the Arctic can at times present challenges relative to other duty stations. As a Marine, I have witnessed firsthand the training and toughness required of our military in Alaska. Our legislation aims to provide better access to the resources and support Alaska's service members and their families deserve in order to thrive in our unique environment."
“After hearing directly from servicemembers stationed in Alaska, it was clear that action is needed to address hardships they face while moving to and living in our state,” Senator Murkowski said. “The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act, which we named in honor of the late Congressman for All Alaska, will help address financial challenges and adjustment to living in Alaska, while also improving access to mental health providers. We must do more to solve the suicide crisis our military faces. We have learned that financial stress is a major contributor to suicidal ideation, but in Alaska, many servicemembers don’t have anywhere to turn for help. Our legislation recognizes the critical role that Arctic Warriors play in the defense of our nation and alleviates some of the hardships that are associated with living in such a remote and austere location. It reflects our strong commitment to military members, their families, and their futures, and I hope Congress will agree to move quickly on it.”
The U.S. military is confronting a suicide crisis. Over the past 5 years, the suicide rate for active-duty servicemembers has increased by 40%. The challenge is especially acute in Alaska, where in 2021, the number of soldiers who died by suicide doubled compared to the previous year. The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act would:
- Address financial pressures on servicemembers stationed in Alaska by creating Arctic Pay, a $300 per month special pay for cold-weather operations, and broadband and travel allowances to address the high cost of internet and airfare home from Alaska.
- Expand the behavioral health workforce through an expansion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, new programs to pay for the education of civilian behavioral health providers in exchange for a service commitment to work in military medical treatment facilities, offering internship training programs for psychologists in military medical treatment facilities, establishing licensure portability for non-medical counselors, and requiring the Department of Defense to develop a plan to fill its shortfall of 1,000 civilian behavioral health providers.
- Establish a car-sharing pilot program to address transportation needs of servicemembers in Alaska.
- Promote safe storage of firearms by testing a voluntary pilot program to subsidize or provide secure gun storage or safety devices, such as firearm locks, for servicemembers.
More specifically, the bill would:
Address Financial Challenges for Servicemembers Stationed in Alaska and Incentivize Skills related to Cold Weather Operations
Financial pressure is a major risk factor for suicide, and the cost of living in Alaska is especially challenging for junior enlisted servicemembers. The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act would establish a broadband allowance for junior enlisted servicemembers stationed in Alaska, where internet costs reach $180 per month, a travel allowance for one trip home per three-year tour, and Arctic Pay, a $300 per month special pay (analogous to dive pay or jump pay) for servicemembers who are trained and assigned to cold-weather operations to incentivize and reward maintenance of skills that are crucial to the National Defense Strategy.
Expand Behavioral Health Capacity throughout the Military
The military behavioral health system is overwhelmed with demand. A 2022 Department of Defense report indicates that the military would need an additional 1,000 behavioral health providers to meet the demand of active-duty servicemembers for behavioral health services. Soldiers in Alaska routinely wait 1-2 months for one-on-one treatment with a clinician, and follow up appointments are monthly instead of the optimal weekly frequency.
Timely access to behavioral health care is a problem across the military, and the main cause is a shortage of behavioral health providers. The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act would expand programs to train behavioral health clinicians at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, establish scholarship-for-service and graduate internship training programs for civilian behavioral health providers in exchange for a service commitment to work as a clinician at military medical treatment facilities, and establish retention bonuses for DoD civilian behavioral health providers.
The Act would also require the Defense Department to establish and report to Congress its plan to address the shortfall of behavioral health providers, including by increasing the numbers of uniformed and civilian providers, and by leveraging tele-behavioral health, and to update access-to-care standards for initial and follow-up appointments.
For issues that do not require clinical treatment, the Act would expand licensure portability for Military Family Life Counselors, who provide non-medical counseling for relationship, financial, and other life problems that do not rise to the level of a clinical diagnosis.
Address Transportation Needs
In Alaska, many servicemembers do not own a car and transportation is challenging, especially in the winter, which contributes to isolation. The Don Young Arctic Warrior Act would require the military to launch a pilot program to test a car-sharing system in Alaska to address this need for transportation while providing additional income to servicemembers who own a vehicle and face especially high ownership and maintenance costs.
Promote Voluntary Safe Storage
Suicidal ideation can begin—and recede—in seconds. The Don Young Artic Warrior Act would create a pilot program at five military installations to promote voluntary safe storage of personally owned firearms when not in use by subsidizing or providing secure gun storage or safety devices to servicemembers who elect to participate. Experts have testified to the Armed Services MILPERS Subcommittee that safe storage of deadly weapons is the most effective deterrent to suicide.
To read the full text of the Don Young Arctic Warrior Act, click here.
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