Army suicides on rise, but progress reported

Programs aim to help soldiers cope with stresses

By Pauline Jelinek
Associated Press / November 18, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Soldier suicides this year are almost sure to top last year’s grim totals, but a recent decline in the pace of such incidents could mean the Army is starting to make progress in stemming them, officials said yesterday.

Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli said that as of Monday, 140 active-duty soldiers were believed to have died of self-inflicted wounds so far in 2009. That’s the same as were confirmed for all of 2008.

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

But Chiarelli said there has been a tapering off in recent months from large surges in suspected suicides in January and February.

“Our goal since the beginning has been to reduce the overall incidence of suicide, and I do believe we are finally beginning to see progress being made,’’ Chiarelli told a Pentagon press conference.

He attributed those hints of a turning to some unprecedented efforts the Army has made since February to educate soldiers and leaders about the issue.

Officials are still stumped about what is driving the historically high rates across the military force. When asked whether the rates reflect unprecedented high stress from long and repeated deployments to provide manpower for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chiarelli said he didn’t know.

“The reality is there is no simple answer,’’ he said. “Each suicide is as unique as the individuals themselves.’’

The rising suicide rate is not unique to the Army. Marine Corps suicides also are higher again this year - there were 42 reported as of Oct. 31 compared with 42 for all of 2008, 33 in 2007 and 25 in 2006.

Though the two ground forces have borne most of the fighting in the two current wars, both the Army and Marines have found that about a third of the self-inflicted deaths were among troops that had never deployed to the battles.

Chiarelli said that on top of the 140 suicides reported from the active-duty Army force, there were an additional 71 suicides by troops in the National Guard and Reserve.

All of the numbers are preliminary in that investigations into some of the deaths are still ongoing.

Of the 140 so far this year among active-duty troops, 90 have been confirmed as suicides and 50 are suspected, but the investigations are not yet finished.

Each year, nearly all suspected suicides are eventually confirmed. For instance in 2008, there were 143 suspected and 140 were eventually confirmed.

Chiarelli said officials will continue to focus on symptoms of high-risk individuals, including those with undiagnosed brain injuries, such as concussions; on those with post-traumatic stress; and on those exhibiting risky behavior, such as poor diet and sleep habits and drug and alcohol abuse.

The Army widened its suicide prevention in March in an attempt to make rapid improvements.

In October, it introduced its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which Chiarelli called “the biggest step . . . taken to enhance wellness in the entire force through prevention rather than treatment.’’

The program aims to put the same emphasis on mental and emotional strength as the military traditionally has on physical strength. Basic training now includes anti-stress programs as part of a broader effort to help soldiers deal with combat.