Joint Chiefs chairman warns of rise in military suicides

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / September 30, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The nation’s top military officer said yesterday that he expects suicides by service members, already alarmingly high, and other family crises to increase in the coming months as large numbers of troops return to their bases after years of multiple deployments.

“I think we are going to see a significant increase in the challenges that we have in terms of our families,’’ Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

With the drawdown of US forces in Iraq accelerating, service members are finally beginning to receive a respite from frequent back-to-back tours of duty since 2003 — particularly for Army and Marine Corps units.

For bases such as Lewis-McChord, an Army and Air Force installation in Washington state, that means an influx of soldiers and aviators. “I was taken aback that at Fort Lewis by the end of October, 36,000 troops will be back,’’ Mullen said. “We have never had that many troops there, certainly not since 2003.’’

Yet that also means commanders must deal with a large number of troops with significant personal challenges who are back for the first extended period with their families.

Mullen remains particularly concerned about suicide rates, which have gone up in every branch of the military since 2004 and have hit record highs in the Army, which has borne the brunt of repeated deployments.

“The emergency issue right now is suicides,’’ Mullen said. “We had five suicides in the Army last weekend.’’

And there are a variety of other well-documented problems facing a ground force that has been stretched thin in recent years, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems that have not yet manifested themselves, he said.

“I think we are going to see a growth in that before we see a decline,’’ Mullen said.

Military officials have worked to increase the length of time between deployments, both to promote greater stability among families and to provide more training for threats beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is now starting to happen as the US military commitment in Iraq winds down, even as troop levels have grown in Afghanistan.