U.S. Army suicides continue to climb

Posted May 10, 2009 by Bob Ewing
Suicides by active-duty soldiers continued to grow during the first four months of 2009. They dropped in April after a service-wide push to identify soldiers at the edge.
US soldiers in Afghanistan
File photo: US soldiers in Aghanistan
Fred W. Baker, DOD
Through April, the Army reported 64 confirmed or potential active-duty suicides, compared with 39 confirmed suicides in the same period last year. The 129 confirmed suicides for all of 2008 marked a record high since the Army started tracking them in 1980.
Army brass in January acknowledged they were losing a battle to understand and reverse a steep four-year rise in soldier suicides that for the first time last year eclipsed the adjusted national suicide rate of 19.5 people per 100,000. They announced several measures, including a month long "stand-down" aimed at reaching every soldier with training designed to shake the stigma of reporting mental health trouble to superiors.
In addition, the Army added hundreds of psychiatrists, psychologists and family therapists as well as launching an ambitious five-year, $50-million study with the National Institute of Mental Health. This is the largest suicide study by the military in its history.
Some of the sparks that lead to suicide are known, for example, troubles with intimate relationships, poor job performance, alcohol or drug abuse. Stress from long deployments and multiple tours can strain relationships, especially intimate ones.
There are currently 64 confirmed or pending active-duty suicides so far this year. This total includes Guard and Reserve deaths and eight soldiers deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan; 13 who had been deployed at least twice; 27 who had been deployed once; and 16 with no deployment history.
"Some of the triggers are the strains of multiple deployments, the sort of 'Dear John' letter, the broken relationships when the soldier is overseas, financial issues. The other issue is losing a buddy in combat," said Sharon Sloane, president of WILL Interactive, which created a role-playing suicide awareness software program for the military.
"It's traditionally been a kind of a stigma, a sign of weakness to talk with someone. They're trying to turn it around and say it's a kind of strength."
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who heads the campaign to reverse the trend in suicides, issued a plan in April that takes "a holistic approach to improving the physical, mental and spiritual health of our soldiers, families and civilians."
An Army spokesman said it is not known if the push may have spurred a decline in confirmed and pending suicides among active-duty soldiers in April, to 7 from an average of 19 over the previous three months.
There is stress management class provided by Maj. Thomas Jarrett’ where American troops are urged not to accept post-traumatic stress disorder as an inevitable consequence of war. Jarrett tells them to strive for “post-traumatic growth,” instead.
The course's theme is: Troops have the power to determine how they react to the horrors they may experience in Iraq. They can either accept them as traumatizing events, or transform them into learning, even empowering, experiences.
The challenge is to get soldiers to open up about their troubles and to break what Lt. Col. Peyton Hurt, the senior psychiatrist in Iraq, calls the old Army way: “You suck it up and drive on.”
”We’re rolling out program after program and making a very concerted effort at lots of levels,” Hurt said. “The government is just pouring money into this stuff right now.”