Army suicides rise again despite new focus by military

McClatchy NewspapersMay 29, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The number of U.S. soldiers committing suicide rose again last year, according to a U.S. Army report released Thursday, despite the military's heightened efforts to encourage troops to seek care.

At least 115 active duty soldiers, National Guardsmen and reservists committed suicide in 2007 compared to 102 the previous year, the report found. Another two incidents are still under investigation, the military said. The Army counted 935 reported suicide attempts.

The study found a "significant relationship" between the risk of suicide to the number of days a soldier serves in Iraq and Afghanistan. About one-quarter died while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, the report found.

The largest percentage of suicides occurred during the first three months of a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, the report found. The largest percentage of suicide attempts came during the second quarter of deployment.

The numbers mark a 20-year high for military suicide rates, which began rising shortly after the Iraq war in 2003. The military has increasingly tried to address mental health issues, countering the view that they reflect a weak soldier.

Some troops have said they fear seeking mental health treatment because it could mar their military careers. To address that, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced earlier this month that troops would no longer be penalized when applying for security clearances if they received mental health treatment for combat stress or other work-related stresses.

"We have no higher priority in the Department of Defense, apart from the war itself, than taking care of our men and women in uniform who have been wounded — who have both visible and unseen wounds," Gates said.

But the military's health care system has struggled to keep up with the new demand on its mental health systems.

During a recent American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Washington, Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie, a psychiatry consultant to the Army's surgeon general, pleaded with mental health care providers to consider joining the military.

"We're having a hard time trying to recruit psychiatrists," Ritchie told the meeting.

U.S. troops began serving 15-month deployments in Iraq to support the surge strategy, which called for roughly 30,000 more troops. Last year, 902 troops were killed in Iraq, making it the deadliest year of the war. There now are about 154,000 troops in Iraq.

The report found that combat stress was a factor, concluding that 20 percent of those who committed suicide had some kind of anxiety disorder, including post-traumatic stress. Nearly two-thirds had served in either Iraq of Afghanistan.

Troops seeking care have often served multiple deployments in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Besides the stress of combat, multiple tours put stress on families. Indeed, the report found that half of those who committed suicide were having family or relationship problems.

Of those who committed suicide, six were female, the report found. Fifty-three percent were under the age of 25, while 57 percent were married.

Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, the deputy chief of staff for personnel, said earlier this year that 580 soldiers had committed suicide since October 2001, when U.S. troops first entered Afghanistan.

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