Retired SEAL: Tracking Special Operators’ Performance May Help Prevent Suicides

Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL students participate in surf passage at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. (U.S. NavyMass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell)
Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL students participate in surf passage at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. (U.S. NavyMass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Russell)

A former Navy SEAL and retired high-ranking Defense Department official said Wednesday that the Pentagon could prevent the suicide spikes that occurred recently among special operators and other service members by tracking every detail of human performance.

In 2018, the Pentagon reported that it suffered the highest number of active-duty suicides since 2012. There were 321 suicides -- 138 soldiers, 68 sailors, 58 airmen and 57 Marines.

Twenty-two U.S. Special Operations Command operators took their own lives in 2018, CNN reported.

"I was shocked and horrified ... just for the fact that our folks are having those kinds of challenges, and we are not even talking about behavioral performance in the field," said Michael Lumpkin, a retired Navy SEAL and former assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.

He made his comments to an audience Wednesday during a discussion on human performance at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict symposium.

"One suicide is too many, but to see a 2X increase, there is a problem," said Lumpkin, who is now the senior vice president for Human Performance and Behavioral Health at Leidos. "The question is, are we capturing the right data to identify those who are vulnerable to things like that, which are some of the most basic things that we should be doing in preserving the force?"

Human performance, in the special operations world, breaks down into four domains "that need to be sustained in order to ensure the highest operating potential for an operator," said panel moderator Jared Ross of the Asymmetric Operations Group.

"There is an optimum state for every person. Some of it is nutrition, some of it is spiritual -- I'm not saying religious, just spiritual -- some of it is the physicality of eat, sleep, move. ... Some of it [is] getting your financial house in order. Some of it is marriage-family counseling," Lumpkin said.

"If you want to get the best out of somebody ... we have to make sure they are 100 percent focused on what is going on," he continued. "Which means they can't be worried about can they afford to put their kid in school, they can't be worried about domestic problems in their house, they can't be worried about their landlord."

Lumpkin said the military is going to "fall short" of its goals for human optimization until a more complete system is created to track data that can affect all aspects of human performance.

Patty Deuster, professor and director of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance, said one of the problems "with the metrics that we are currently collecting is they are more pathology-based."

"They are illness-based; they are not wellness- or performance-based. And I think that we have to have a merging of those types of metrics," Deuster said.

Illness and performance data need to be loaded into a common database such as the Defense Department's electronic health record system "so they can be analyzed at the individual level, at the unit level and on up so that you can ... predict who needs something right there and then, as opposed to after something has already happened," she said.

Such an endeavor may be expensive, but Lumpkin argues it will be worth it.

"People say, 'We can't afford to do that data and data analysis,' " he said. "I would argue that we can't afford not to."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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