WASHINGTON — Suicides among Army and Air National Guard and Reserve troops have spiked this year, and the military is at a loss to explain why.
Sixty-five members of the Guard and Reserve took their own lives during the first six months of 2010, compared with 42 for the same period in 2009. The grim tally is further evidence that suicides continue to plague the military even though it's stepped up prevention efforts through counseling and mental health awareness programs.
"Suicides among military personnel and veterans are at an epidemic rate, and it's getting worse," said Tim Embree, a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq and is now a legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.
Last week, the Army announced that 32 soldiers, including 11 in the Guard and Reserve, took their own lives in June, a rate of one a day and a level not seen since the Vietnam War, according to the military.
Seven of the suicides occurred in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The worrisome trend is reflected in Missouri, where the state Army and Air National Guards have suffered six suicides so far this year, their highest total in a decade. They account for nearly a quarter of the 27 suicides experienced since the Missouri Guard started keeping records in 2001.
"We're all devastated," said Col. Gary Gilmore, joint force chaplain for the Missouri Guard. "From their battle buddy right next to them all the way up the chain, each one has a tremendous personal impact and sense of loss."
Explanations are hard to come by. The suicides could have nothing — or everything — to do with the victims' military service.
"It is the separation from our families, it is the lack of a support structure in our personal lives sometimes, financial challenges, relationships — we know that," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a recent talk about the suicide problem to troops in South Korea.
Unlike active-duty troops, Guard members are part-time soldiers and airmen. Except for deployments, they are together for only 39 days a year for training. They rely largely on private medical care.
Some of the possible triggers for military suicides, such as multiple combat deployments, sometimes aren't factors.
In Missouri, for example, only two of the six who committed suicide had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, both in 2005. Only one had been deployed previously, in 1991.
Of the six, one was a woman. Three were between the ages of 18 and 25, two between 37 and 55, and one between 26 and 31.
"Honestly, we don't know what's going on or we would solve it," said Maj. Tammy Spicer, a Missouri Guard spokeswoman. "We have 11,800 members, and six took their lives. It is not a soldier in a uniform in an armory committing suicide. It is someone on off-duty status in their community with their family nearby that's making that choice. We need help in this battle."
Experts said the deaths had underscored the difficulty the military was having in grappling with its suicide problem after a decade of war, compounded by a shortage of mental health professionals. Last winter, Army officials said they needed 750 to 800 more psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers.
The stigma over acknowledging mental health problems remains another roadblock. Warriors are reluctant to show weakness.
"It's a continuing catastrophe that can be prevented if the military hired more mental health care professionals, provided more education about mental health and stopped treating mental health problems as a criminal justice problem," said Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Two Democratic senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Patty Murray of Washington state, introduced legislation in May that would require the Defense Department to embed mental health counselors in all National Guard and Reserve units.
The military has mounted a more aggressive campaign to reach out to service members who might be experiencing stress and other mental health issues. Part of its focus is emphasizing to fellow troops and officers the need to be aware of what their comrades might be experiencing.
The Missouri Army and Air National Guards have partnered with the state Department of Mental Health to provide more access to its services.
"That means my guys in remote areas now have a community mental health resource right there," Gilmore said.
Psychological health wasn't high on the National Guard's agenda until recently, but Capt. Joan Hunter, the director of psychological health at the National Guard Bureau, said its program had counseled 2,800 troops, including more than 250 considered to be high-risk.
"I think we've saved lives," she said.
Military OneSource: 1-800-342-9647.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline: 1-800-984-8523.
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