Army suicides: Poor leadership, not repeat deployments blamed

WASHINGTON — A new Army report has found that inattention to rising rates of drug abuse and criminal activity among soldiers and not repeat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan is responsible for the record-high levels of suicide among troops.

The 350-page report, which was released Thursday, said that military commanders are so focused on preparing their troops for war that they've allowed troops to engage in risky behavior at home that may lead to suicide.

The 15-month study, titled Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, and Suicide Prevention, said that the vast majority of soldiers who killed themselves — 79 percent — had never been deployed to a combat zone or had been deployed just once.

The report instead blamed the Army's intense focus on war preparations for "unintentionally" limiting base commanders' "leadership and management requirements."

The result, the report found, is that "enforcement of policies designated to ensure good order and discipline has atrophied. This, in turn, has led to an increasing population of soldiers who display high risk behavior which erodes the health of the force."

The report said that both the use of illegal drugs and the involvement of soldiers in other criminal activities have skyrocketed — and that suicide was one of the results. It called for commanders to move more quickly to eject repeat offenders from the military.

Since fiscal year 2005, 29 percent of suicides included either drug or alcohol abuse, the report found.

"As we continue to wage war on several fronts, data would suggest we are becoming more dependent on pharmaceuticals to sustain the force. In fact, anecdotal information suggests that the force is becoming increasingly dependent on both legal and illegal drugs," the report found. About one third of soldiers are on some kind of prescription drug, the report found including 14 percent who are taking some kind of pain medication.

In addition, there has been an increase in crimes. Soldiers committed 50,523 offenses in fiscal year 2009, compared with 28,388 five years earlier.

The study was commissioned after the Army suicide rate, traditionally below the average civilian rate of 19.2 per 100,000 people, rose to 20.2 per 100,000 in 2008.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of Staff of the Army, who's led the Army's effort to tackle the rising suicide rate, said the report suggested that leaders who excel on the battlefield may be failing their troops once they return home.

Chiarelli has made the issue a personal priority. He's briefed monthly on each suicide in the Army and has made suicide prevention a top Army issue. At bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan, signs now tell soldiers to look for warning signs among their comrades.

Back home, however, base commanders remain focused on preparing troops for their next deployment and on the effects of the last deployment. "Because of everything we're doing, we have not paid the attention we need to high-risk behavior," Chiarelli said.

Chiarelli said that the report suggested that commanders must be schooled to spend more time with soldiers, particularly those new to the military and be aware of problems.

The report called for a renewed emphasis on drug and alcohol abuse programs and for commanders to intervene when soldiers violate disciplinary standards. It included several pages devoted to when commanders should move to eject repeat offenders from the military.

"The obligation and authority of a commander to levy consequences for action is a tool every commander must use," the report said. While commanders may struggle to mentor young soldiers, they must also recognize when the best thing for the Army is to seek to have a soldier returned to civilian life.

The authority to separate someone from the Army, the report said, is "arguably the most important tool the leader has to manage the readiness, health, welfare, morale and discipline of the unit."

The report said the Army has done a poor job of recognizing and dealing with drug abuse within its ranks and urged commanders to take a tougher line.

"Serial drug abuse contradicts Army values," the report said. "The large number of soldiers with three or more positive drug tests demonstrates that the Army by its inattention is condoning high risk behavior . . . One should question the fitness and readiness of a soldier who has been identified as a serial abuser."

Drug use is also linked to "criminal activity, spouse abuse and financial strain," the report said.

The report also found that the Army needs to provide at least 36 months time at home between combat deployments — something it won't be able to do for years.

That means that soldiers and their families will face unusually high level of stress, even after a soldier has returned from a deployment — and that the stress may continue "indefinitely," the report found.

In 2009, 160 soldiers committed suicide and another 146 died by other violent means, such as murder, drug abuse or reckless driving while drunk. Another 1,713 attempted suicide.

So far, the Army has not been able to stop the epidemic of suicides. In June, the Army said 32 active duty and reserve officers committed suicide, the highest monthly figure since the military began keep such statistics. So far in 2010, there have been a 80 reported active duty soldier suicides and another 65 among reservists.


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