WASHINGTON — Active-duty soldiers committed suicide last year at the highest rate in 26 years, with nearly one-third of those taking their lives doing so while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, the Pentagon said Thursday.
The report found that depression and hopelessness drove soldiers to commit suicide but said that post-traumatic stress disorder related to combat experiences wasn't a major cause.
But Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, acknowledged that being deployed can affect how soldiers deal with personal issues, such as a failed relationship or financial problems.
``Very often, a young soldier gets a 'Dear John' or 'Dear Jane' letter and then takes his weapon and shoots himself,'' Ritchie told a news conference at the Pentagon.
Critics said the report underscored the military's failure to meet the mental health needs of soldiers who are serving multiple and longer deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, often with shorter breaks. They scoffed at the classification of post-traumatic stress disorder as a relatively small contributor to suicides.
April Somdahl, of Trenton, N.C., said her 26-year-old brother, Sgt. Brian Rand of the 96th Aviation Support Battalion, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., shot himself after serving three deployments.
Somdahl said her brother went to a Veterans Affairs clinic seeking help for depression after his second deployment to Iraq and was promised an honorable discharge, but instead was sent to Iraq for a third time. He killed himself after returning, she said, after telling her he planned to do so.
"He said he was going to do it because it was the only way out," said Somdahl, who blamed lack of proper care for her brother's death.
"They should prepare them to join civilian life again," she said.
The report found that a soldier is more likely to attempt suicide if he or she has served more than one tour in a war zone, but it didn't measure how much that risk increases with each deployment. The findings "suggest that combat exposure may be more of a risk factor for suicide behaviors after soldiers redeploy," the report said.
In all, the report said that there had been 99 suicides confirmed among active-duty soldiers during 2006, up from 88 in 2005. Of those, 70 percent were under the age of 25, and 51 percent were never married. Another 948 attempted suicide in 2006, the report found.
The statistics are the highest since 1980, when the military began tracking suicide rates.
The mental health of soldiers and Marines has been a growing issue as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have required more troops to return to the combat zones multiple times.
In May, the Pentagon released a study that found that one-third of soldiers and Marines had reported mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, after returning from combat. It also found that soldiers and Marines are more susceptible to mental health issues if they serve longer than six months in a combat zone.
Earlier this year, the military increased deployment times for the Army from 12 to 15 months to move more troops into Iraq. Marines serve for seven months. Many troops have served multiple deployments since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
A Pentagon report issued in June found that the military's mental health system is poorly funded and doesn't have enough professionals and that military families have a hard time getting proper treatment.