November 18, 2009 in Nation/World

Suicides among soldiers approach record for year

Nancy A. Youssef McClatchy
 

WASHINGTON – Suicides in the Army are expected to reach a new high this year, with 140 suspected cases among active-duty soldiers so far, Army officials said Tuesday.

This will be the fifth year in a row that grim statistic rose despite an aggressive military campaign to tackle the mental health stigma in the Army. This year’s number already matches that for all of 2008. There were 115 suicides in 2007 and 102 in 2006.

These new numbers come as the military is investigating what may have driven Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, who allegedly shot 55 people Nov. 5 at Fort Hood, Texas. The military has charged Hasan, who was set to deploy to Afghanistan, with 13 counts of premeditated murder.

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said the military wasn’t seeing any trends that explained the rise. Forty suicides occurred in the first two months of the year. About a third were by soldiers who had never deployed to war zones, and 40 percent of those who committed suicide had seen mental health specialists.

“We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year,” Chiarelli said. “This is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of these numbers in any way.”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often have demanded that soldiers serve multiple tours. Concerns are rising about stress on the force, particularly as the Obama administration considers sending more troops to Afghanistan.

An Army study released last week found that a growing number of soldiers serving in Afghanistan are suffering from some kind of mental stress and that the war zone doesn’t have enough mental health counselors to meet the needs there.

Domestically, Chiarelli said, the biggest increased numbers of suicides happened at Fort Stewart, Ga., with 10, Fort Campbell, Ky., with 18, and Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, with seven. The biggest declines have occurred at Fort Hood, with 11; Fort Bragg, N.C., with six; and Fort Drum, N.Y., with two so far this year, even though they’re some of the largest military installations deploying troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

At Fort Campbell, the majority of suicides were by soldiers who’d never deployed.

“I’ve scrubbed the numbers every way I possibly can,” Chiarelli said. “I cannot find a causal link.”

He said the military’s study had found that substance and prescription-drug abuse was increasingly a contributing factor, adding that he thought that the Army needed another 300 substance-abuse counselors.

The Army is looking at ways to give more mental health options to the forces, including online counseling, which younger soldiers prefer.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has urged soldiers to seek mental health treatment, saying that it wouldn’t be held against them during consideration for promotions. In a military culture that stresses perseverance in the face of challenges, however, the stigma of mental illness has stuck. On Oct. 1, the Army announced a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program to evaluate the mental health of the force.

Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, the director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, said there was no way for the Army to measure how many suicides its resources had prevented, making assessing possible solutions difficult.

In his tours to various military installations, Chiarelli has called mental health trauma from warfare equal to physical injuries.


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