At Least 430 Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Have Committed Suicide
by Aaron Glantz
October 31, 2007
It's time to change of count of American war dead upward.
The Associated Press has got hold of a preliminary government study on
suicides by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. According to the VA, at
least 283 combat veterans who left the military between the start of
the war in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 and the end of 2005 took
their own lives. In addition, 147 troops have killed themselves in
Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began bringing the government
count to 430.
The VA's count is not a complete one, however. It does not include
members of the military who returned from Iraq and then killed
themselves before being discharged from the service – people like Sgt
Brian Rand who shot himself in the head after returning home from his
It also doesn't include the deaths of people like Sgt. James Dean who
was shot by Maryland state troopers after he barricaded himself in his
father's farmhouse. Observers call those deaths "suicide by cop."
And it doesn't include the deaths of people like Sgt. Gerald Cassidy,
a 32 year old Indiana National Guardsman, who died at Fort Knox five
months after returning from Iraq with brain damage from a roadside bomb.
How many more American deaths continue to go uncounted?
Regardless, it's clear is that we need to change our count of
casualties upward from 4,229 US military deaths (3,842 in Iraq and 387
in Afghanistan) to closer to 5,000 – possibly more when you consider
those deaths that still haven't been counted.
Iraq, Afghan Vets at Risk for Suicides
By KIMBERLY HEFLING
WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of troops have come home from war, left the
military and committed suicide.
That is the finding of preliminary Veterans Affairs Department
research obtained by The Associated Press that provides the first
quantitative look at the suicide toll on today's combat veterans. The
ongoing research reveals that at least 283 combat veterans who left
the military between the start of the war in Afghanistan on Oct. 7,
2001, and the end of 2005 took their own lives.
The numbers, while not dramatically different from society as a whole,
are reminiscent of the increased suicide risk among returning soldiers
in the Vietnam era.
Today's homefront suicide tally is running at least double the number
of troop suicides in the war zones as thousands of men and women
return with disabling injuries and mental health disorders that put
them at higher risk.
A total of 147 troops have killed themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan
since the wars began, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center,
which tracks casualties for the Pentagon.
Add the number of returning veterans and the finding is that at least
430 of the 1.5 million troops who have fought in the two wars have
killed themselves over the past six years. And that doesn't include
those who committed suicide after their combat tour ended and while
still in the military — a number the Pentagon says it doesn't track.
That compares with at least 4,229 U.S. military deaths overall since
the wars started — 3,842 in Iraq and 387 in and around Afghanistan.
In response, the VA is ramping up suicide prevention programs.
Research suggests that combat trauma increases the risk of suicide,
according to the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Difficulty dealing with failed relationships, financial and legal
troubles, and substance abuse also are risk factors among troops, said
Cynthia O. Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Families see the effects first hand.
"None of them come back without being touched a little," said Mary
Gallagher, a mother of three whose husband, Marine Gunnery Sgt. James
Gallagher, took his own life in 2006 inside their home at Camp
He was proud of his Iraq service, but she wonders whether he was
bothered by the death of his captain in Iraq or an incident in which
he helped rescue a soldier who was in a fire and later died. Shortly
before his death, her husband was distraught over an assignment change
he saw as an insult, she said.
"His death contradicts the very person he was. It's very confusing and
difficult to understand," said Gallagher of Lynbrook, N.Y.
The family of another Iraq veteran who committed suicide, Jeffrey
Lucey, 23, of Belchertown, Mass., filed suit against the former VA
secretary, alleging that bad care at the VA was to blame.
And the family of Joshua Omvig, a 22-year-old Iraq war veteran from
Davenport, Iowa, who also committed suicide, successfully pushed
Congress to pass a bill that President Bush is expected to sign that
requires the VA to improve suicide prevention care.
Suicides in Iraq have occurred since the early days of the wars, but
awareness was heightened when the Army said its suicide rate in 2006
rose to 17.3 per 100,000 troops — the highest level in 26 years of
That compares with 9.3 per 100,000 for all military services combined
in 2006 and 11.1 per 100,000 for the general U.S. population in 2004,
the latest year statistics were available. The Army has said the
civilian rate for the same age and gender mix as in the Army is 19 to
20 per 100,000 people.
Just looking at the VA's early numbers, Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's deputy
chief patient care service officer for mental health, said there does
not appear to be an epidemic of suicides among those who served in
Iraq and Afghanistan who left the military.
Katz said post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and problem
drinking increase a person's suicide risk by two or three times, but
the rate of suicide among those with such conditions "is still very,
He acknowledged, however, that it is too early to know the long-term
ramifications for those who served in the wars and said the VA "is
very intensely involved in increasing suicide prevention."
"We're not doing it because there's an epidemic in returning veterans,
though each death of a returning veteran is a tragedy and it's
important to prevent it," Katz said.
The VA and Defense Department have hired more counselors and made
other improvements in mental health care, including creation of a
veterans suicide prevention hot line.
At the VA's national suicide hot line center based in Canandaigua,
N.Y., counselors have taken more than 9,000 calls since July. Some
callers are just looking for someone to talk to. Others are concerned
family members. Callers who choose to give their names can opt to be
met at a local VA center by a suicide prevention counselor; more than
120 callers have been rescued by emergency personnel — some after
swallowing pills or with a gun nearby, according to the center.
"It's sad, but I think in the other way it's very exciting because
already we've seen really sort of people being able to change their
lives around because of the access to resources they've been able to
get," said Jan Kemp, who oversees the call center.
Penny Coleman, whose ex-husband committed suicide after returning from
Vietnam, said she doesn't buy what she calls the "we didn't expect
this" mentality about suicide.
"If you'd chosen to pay attention after Vietnam you would have and
should have anticipated it would happen again," said Coleman, who
published a book on the subject last year.
One government study of Army veterans from Vietnam found they were
more likely to die from suicide than other veterans in the first five
years after leaving the military, although the study found the
likelihood dissipated over time. There is still heated debate,
however, over the total number of suicides by Vietnam veterans; the
extent to which it continues even today is unknown.
One major hurdle in stopping suicide is getting people to ask for
help. From 20 percent to 50 percent of active duty troops and
reservists who returned from war reported psychological problems,
relationship problems, depression and symptoms of stress reactions,
but most report that they have not sought help, according to a report
from a military mental health task force.
"It's only when it becomes painful will someone seek counseling," said
Chris Ayres, manager of the combat stress recovery program at the
Wounded Warrior Project, a private veterans' assistance group based in
Jacksonville, Fla. "That's usually how it happens. Nobody just walks
in, because it's the hardest thing for a male, a Marine, a type-A
personality figure to just go in there and say, 'Hey, I need some help.'"
While not suicidal, Ayres, 37, a former Marine captain from the
Houston area who had the back of his right leg blown off in Iraq, has
experienced episodes related to his post-traumatic stress disorder and
said he worried about being stigmatized if he got help.
He's since learned to manage through counseling, and he's encouraging
other veterans to get help.
Ayres is among 28,000 Americans injured in the war, more than 3,000
In a study published earlier this year, researchers at Portland State
University in Oregon found veterans were twice as likely to commit
suicide as male nonveterans. High gun ownership rates, along with
debilitating injuries and mental health disorders, were all risk
factors that seemed to put the veterans at greater risk, said Mark
Kaplan, one of the researchers.
While veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were not included in the
study, Kaplan said that given the nature of the injuries of the recent
wars and the strain of long and repeated deployments, the newer
generation of veterans could be at risk for suicide.
Kaplan said primary care physicians should ask patients whether they
are veterans, and if the answer is yes, inquire about their mental health.
"This is war unlike other wars and we don't know the long-term
implications and the hidden injuries of war," Kaplan said.
Dr. Dan Blazer, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical
Center who served this year on the military's mental health task
force, said improvements in care will likely help some veterans, but
he's concerned about this generation. He said he treats World War II
veterans still struggling mentally with their military experience.
"There's still going to be individuals that just totally slip through
all of these safety nets that we construct to try to help things in
the aftermath," Blazer said.
Suicide, Blazer said, "is a cost of war. It's a big one."
On the Net:
Suicide Prevention Network USA: http://www.spanusa.org/
Wounded Warrior Project: http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
Mystery surrounds death of soldier
Quincy woman is called a noncombat casualty
By Noah Bierman
October 2, 2007
The Massachusetts National Guard soldier from Quincy who died in
Afghanistan Friday was found with a single bullet in her head lying
near her church on a secure military base, her family said yesterday
after a briefing from Army officials.
The Department of Defense said in a statement yesterday that Ciara
Durkin's injuries came from a "non-combat related incident" that is
under investigation. The statement contradicts a Sunday statement from
the Massachusetts Army National Guard that said Durkin, an Army
specialist, was killed in action. A guard spokesman said the term was
meant to imply that Durkin was deployed in Afghanistan at the time of
"We're completely in the dark," said Pierce Durkin, the soldier's
28-year-old brother. "Patience is probably dissipating."
Family members, who are pushing for more information from Army
officials, are girding for the possibility that Ciara (pronounced
Kee-ra) Durkin was killed by a fellow service member, intentionally or
accidentally, at the Bagram Airfield. They said they are confident
that she did not commit suicide.
"The family has been going over this several times," Pierce Durkin
said. "There is nothing to indicate that it could have possibly been
The unusual case is drawing intense interest from Ireland, where
Durkin, 30, and most of her family were born and where three siblings
live. Her family is appealing to the Irish government, in addition to
American congressmen, for additional help in clearing up the details
of her death. A US Central Command spokesman in Afghanistan, reached
by telephone yesterday, did not provide further details to a reporter.
Pierce Durkin said his family is hoping that the military will "speed
up and that they will deliver a very thorough and very honest and very
fact-based and sincere report."
Inconsistent stories surrounding the injury to Army Private Jessica
Lynch and the death of former professional football player-turned-Army
Ranger Pat Tillman have increased the family's skepticism, Durkin said.
"We understand that military relations are so much connected to public
relations concerns," he said. "Therefore, if it was something that was
unfavorable it would be handled from a public relations mindset not a
The vast majority of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan have been
combat-related. The US military reported yesterday that 3,100 of 3,799
deaths in Iraq and 252 of 438 deaths in Afghanistan were classified as
Deaths listed by the military as nonhostile include injuries from car
crashes and other logistical accidents, as well as suicides. Durkin's
unit, which handled financial accounts on the base, was not involved
Shooting deaths on a secure base are "very, very rare," said Ted
Oelstrom, a retired lieutenant general who directs the National
Security Program at Harvard's Kennedy School. "There has been probably
a handful of these incidents over time."
Pierce Durkin was the last member of his family to hear from his
sister. She left him a birthday greeting on his voicemail at 1 a.m.
"She was saying, 'Pierce, I love you. I can't wait to see you.' And
she started singing 'Happy Birthday,' " he said.
The siblings were close, the two youngest in a family of nine
children. When she was on leave in Quincy for two weeks last month,
she and her brother made plans to pool their money to buy a home so
they could quit paying rent. She wanted to go to school to study
information technology or finance, her brother said.
"I don't think anyone could have gone from such a jovial mood on the
14th [of September] to such a 180" degree turn toward suicide, Pierce
Ciara Durkin may have been on her way to or from church when she was
killed, according to her sister Fiona Canavan. Military officials told
the family she was nearby when she was found.
"We know they had very frequent concerns about snipers over there,"
Canavan said. "But she was in a secure area . . . which, even though
the investigation is not complete, leads the family to believe it was
what is called 'friendly fire.' "
Military officials told Durkin family members the investigation could
take as long as eight weeks.
Durkin's wake will take place from 4-9 p.m. Friday at the Dennis
Sweeney Funeral Home in Quincy. Her funeral will be held at 10 a.m.
Saturday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Quincy.
Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman @ globe.com.
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