General unsure if repeated combat tours to blame for record Army suicides
2009 breaks Army record for soldier suicides, up over a dozen from 2008
Suicides in the US Army are headed to a new record this year but it remains unclear if repeated combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq are causing more soldiers to take their lives, a top general has said.
With 140 suspected cases reported among soldiers since the start of 2009, the number of suicides was already at last year’s level, General Peter Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, told a news conference.
“We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year,” Chiarelli said.
As of Monday, 71 suspected suicides also were reported among service members no longer on active duty, which surpassed the 2008 figure, he said.
The total number of Army suicides has reached 211 as of Tuesday, according to the government’s tally.
“For all of 2008, the Army said 140 active-duty soldiers killed themselves while 57 Guard and Reserve soldiers committed suicide, totaling 197, according to Army statistics,” CNN noted.
The release of the latest suicide numbers came as President Barack Obama considers sending more US troops to Afghanistan, where nearly 68,000 American forces are already deployed.
The army has come under severe strain from years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with officers citing repeated deployments and the stress of combat as fueling an increase in depression and marital problems.
But Chiarelli said the causes of the rising suicide rate remained unclear and varied from base to base.
About one-third of the soldiers who committed suicide had not yet deployed to either war, he said.
Top US military officer Admiral Mike Mullen, meanwhile, acknowledged the stress of the wars on the army and the Marine Corps but said he did not think the force was at a “tipping point.”
He added that “I certainly would not want to underestimate the seriousness of the stress issue for individuals and for families.”
Chiarelli said the army had launched promising initiatives to try to prevent suicide and teach soldiers how to recover from trauma.
“We believe, despite these numbers, that we are making some progress,” he said.
The army had pored over the numbers to try to figure out what factors might be behind the suicides — including links to combat tours or seasons of the year — but there was no clear pattern, he said.
“So everywhere I try to cut this and look at it to try to find out what the causal effect is, I get thwarted,” he said.
“And that’s why we think that we’ve got to look in its totality at a whole bunch of different issues, and it’s going to take time.”
One possible link cited by the Army Science Board was that soldiers appeared more likely to commit suicide if they were separated from a base or post, even if they were living in an American city, he said.
Chiarelli said alcohol and drug abuse was on the rise and that was also likely part of the problem.
He said about 900 mental health specialists had been hired to offer more help to troubled soldiers but another 800 were needed. And he said there was a shortage of counselors for those with substance abuse problems, with about 300 more required.
“I need more of them so that I can expand this program to other posts, camps and stations,” he said of the substance abuse counselors.
The general also repeated his appeal to army leaders to ensure soldiers who needed psychological help did not face ridicule or risk to their careers.
“This is a matter of life and death and it is absolutely unacceptable to have individuals suffering in silence because they’re afraid their peers or superiors will make fun of them, or worse, it will adversely affect their careers,” he said.
Chiarelli said a recently-launched study of suicide and mental health among army troops should offer insights into the roots of the problem.
The elaborate, five-year study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is examining factors possibly associated with suicide, including combat-related trauma, personal and economic stress, family history, childhood abuse, a military unit’s cohesion and general mental health.
The 50-million-dollar study will include a survey of the up to 120,000 recruits who enter the army every year and will analyze data and interview soldiers who attempted suicide in the past, comparing them to individuals with similar demographic characteristics.