Army reports alarming spike in suicides
By Pauline Jelinek
WASHINGTON - The Army is investigating an unexplained and stunning spike in suicides in January. The count is likely to surpass the number of combat deaths reported in January by all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the fight against terrorism.
The seven confirmed suicides and 17 other suspected suicides in January were far above the toll for most months. Self-inflicted deaths were at 12 or fewer for each of nine months in 2008, Army data showed.
"In January, we lost more soldiers to suicide than to al-Qaida," said Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He urged "bold and immediate action" by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
According to figures obtained by The Associated Press, there were seven confirmed suicides last month, compared with five a year earlier. An additional 17 cases from January are under investigation.
There was no detailed breakdown available for January, such as the percentage of suicides that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan or information about the dead. But just one base—Fort Campbell in Kentucky—reported that four soldiers killed themselves near the installation, where 14,000 soldiers from the two wars have returned from duty since October.
Some Fort Campbell soldiers have done three or four tours of duty in the wars. "They come back and they really need to be in a supportive environment," said Dr. Bret Logan, a commander at the base's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital. "They really need to be nourished back to normalcy because they have been in a very extreme experience that makes them vulnerable to all kinds of problems."
Officials said they did not know what caused the rise in suicides last month and that it often takes time to fully investigate a number of the deaths. "There is no way to know—we have not identified any particular problem," said Lt. Col. Mike Moose, a spokesman for Army personnel issues.
Yearly suicides have risen steadily since 2004 amid increasing stress on the force from long and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The service has rarely, if ever, released a month-by-month update on suicides. But officials said Feb. 5 they wanted to re-emphasize "the urgency and seriousness necessary for preventive action at all levels" of the force.
The seven confirmed suicides and 17 other suspected suicides in January were far above the toll for most months. Self-inflicted deaths were at 12 or fewer for each of nine months in 2008, Army data showed. The highest monthly number last year was 14 in August.
Usually the vast majority of suspected suicides are eventually confirmed. If that holds true, it would mean that self-inflicted deaths in January surpassed the 16 combat deaths reported last month in all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations considered part of the global fight against terrorism.
Army leaders took the unusual step of briefing congressional leaders on the information Feb. 5.
An annual report the week before showed that soldiers killed themselves at the highest rate on record in 2008. The toll for all of last year—128 confirmed and 15 pending investigations—was an increase for the fourth straight year. It even surpassed the civilian rate adjusted to reflect the age and gender differences in the military.
"The trend and trajectory seen in January further heightens the seriousness and urgency that all of us must have in preventing suicides," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, said.
The other services did not immediately provide information on their suicide figures for January. But the Army in the past few years has posted a consistently higher rate of suicides than the Navy, Air Force and Marines as it has carried the largest burden of the two largely ground wars.
In announcing the 2008 figures, the Army said it would hold special training from Feb. 15 to March 15 to help troops recognize suicidal behaviors and to intervene if they see such behavior in a buddy. After that, the Army also plans a suicide prevention program for all soldiers from the top of the chain of command down.
Yearly increases in suicides have been recorded since 2004, when there were 64 all year. Officials have said over the years that they found that the most common factors were soldiers suffering problems with their personal relationships, legal or financial issues and problems on the job.
But Army Secretary Pete Geren acknowledged recently that officials have been stumped by the spiraling number of cases.
The relentless rise in suicides has frustrated the service, which has tried to address the issue through additional suicide prevention training, the hiring of more psychiatrists and other mental health staff, and other programs both at home and at the battlefront for troops and their families.
In October, the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health signed an agreement to do a five-year study to identify factors affecting the mental and behavioral health of soldiers and come up with intervention strategies at intervals along the way.
(Associated Press writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.)-
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