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The Silent War

As many as 121 Army soldiers committed suicide in 2007, a jump of some 20 percent over the year before, officials said Thursday.

The rise comes despite numerous efforts to improve the mental health of a force stressed by a longer-than-expected war in Iraq and the most deadly year yet in the now six-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.

Internal briefing papers prepared by the Army’s psychiatry consultant early this month show there were 89 confirmed suicides last year and 32 deaths that are suspected suicides and still under investigation.

More than a quarter of those — about 34 — happened during deployments in Iraq, an increase from 27 in Iraq the previous year, according to the preliminary figures.

The report also shows an increase in the number of attempted suicides and self-injuries — some 2,100 in 2007 compared to less than 1,500 the previous year and less than 500 in 2002.

The total of 121 suicides last year, if all are confirmed, would be more than double the 52 reported in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the Bush administration to launch its counter-terror war. The toll was 87 by 2005 and 102 in 2006.

Officials said the rate of suicides per 100,000 active duty soldiers has not yet been calculated for 2007. But in a half million-person active duty Army, the 2006 toll of 102 translated to a rate of 17.5 per 100,000, the highest since the Army started counting in 1980, officials said. The rate has fluctuated over those years, with the low being 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001.

That toll and rate for 2006 is a revision from figures released in August because a number of pending cases have since been concluded. Officials earlier had reported 99 soldiers killed themselves in 2006 and two cases were pending — as opposed to the 102 now confirmed. It’s common for investigations to take some time and for officials to study results at length before releasing them publicly.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, has said that officials found failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems and the stress of their jobs have been main factors in soldiers’ suicides. Officials also have found that the number of days troops are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries contributes to that stress.

With the Army stretched thin by years of fighting the two wars, the Pentagon last year extended normal tours of duty to 15 months from 12 and has sent some troops back to the wars several times. The Army has been hoping to reduce tour lengths this summer. But the prospect could depend heavily on what Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recommends when he gives his assessment of security in Iraq and troop needs to Congress in April.

A succession of studies on mental health in the military have found a system that might have been adequate for peacetime has been overwhelmed by troops coming home from war. Some troop surveys in Iraq have shown that 20 percent of Army soldiers have signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which can cause flashbacks of traumatic combat experiences and other severe reactions. About 35 percent of soldiers are seeking some kind of mental health treatment a year after returning home under a program that screens returning troops for physical and mental health problems, officials have said.

Officials have worked to set up a number of new programs and strengthen old ones for providing mental health care to the force. The Army also has been working to stem the stigma associated with getting therapy for mental problems, after officials found that troops are avoiding counseling out of fear it could harm their careers.

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  1. Anonymous
    January 31, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    Well it looks as though we may need to step up the screening process before we let these troubled people in the military!

    Thanks for bring this up Dave.

    The better we screen for those that are not as stable as they need to be to serve in the military, will reduce these numbers greatly.

    It is in fact much better that they don’t make it into the military as they have the ability to bring down morale with their problems. This will also increase our efficiencies by reducing the drag on the men & women on the ground.

    Maybe there is some way to get them help once they are screened out before they join. That would be a good thing to do.

  2. Rich from Paso
    February 1, 2008 at 3:28 am

    Throughout my time in the military, there have been a suicide here or there. The main reason I have seen for suicides in the military is that people enter miltiary service with poor coping skills for the crises that hit everyday people. Servicemembers either cannot manage their money right and end up bankrupt, a relationship their significant other ends and it is a major emotional trauma to them, or they lead a double life that comes crashing down. The one constant if ever situation is the feeling of being alone and helpless. There is an old saying, “Never take counsel of your fears.” I feel that is what many suicide victims due is talk themselves into suicide as the only viable end to whatever crisis they are facing.

    Back in 1994 or so, the Chief of Naval Operations (the Navy’s head man) Admiral Borda, committed suicide after the press reported that he was not authorized to wear two of his Vietnam medals. The man that broke the story did it in a particularlly vicious manner. Follwing reports were that it was actually an honest mistake and not the Admirals fault. Why woud the senior Navy office do that? I feel that the two factors were not being able to cope with the loss of honor he felt he incurred due the way it was reported and that he was alone at the top. Of course, this was 7 to 9 years before the war in Iraq.

    Maybe I missed it, but I would like to see the study go further and compare the suicide rates versus those of the Vietnam War and those against those of society as a whole. The military community is derived from the society as a whole and is therefore a reflection of society as a whole. There are hundreds of trained psychologists that deploy with the combat troops in units called Combat Stress Control units. These doctors have the authority to remove soldiers from the line if they are showing signs of PTSD or other symptoms related to their deployment. When I was there in 03-04, there was one suicide for a brigade of 5,000 troops. If the number for today is only 33 deaths higher for the entire theater of operationsof 150,000, that speaks very well to the job that the commanders on the grouns, first line supervisors and the CSC doctors are doing to prevent soliders from getting to the point of suicide.

    I warn all of you not to try to make this an issue about the war in Iraq specifically. There is a very real posibility that those that committed suicide would have done so even if they had never put on the uniform. Stress is stress, only the source is different. A person can be driven to suicide working in an office building just as easily as a soldier fighting in the streets of Mosul. The only difference would be why. To make this another anti-war issue is disengenuous, misleading and plain wrong. It also slanders the work of leaders at all levels of the military that work extra hard to watch out for their fellow soldiers and get them treatment before thoughts of suicide become actions.

  3. Downtown Bob
    February 1, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Rich: Again, a very thoughtful comment here by someone who has actual experience in theater; thank you. I agree that someone like myself who is anti-war should not make this an issue about the war in Iraq, however a couple of points of distinction: we are not currently “at war” in Iraq, it is an occupation; the war that we (the US) did fight in Iraq was done so quickly and efficiently (even if the troops could have been better equipped and in greater numbers); and what this issue boils down to (again) is poor leadership on the part of those who are the ones in ultimate command. Rich, don’t you see it as feasible that had there been better planning and execution (more troops to better police the aftermath of the invasion, for one), if Paul Bremmer had not disbanded the Iraqi military and police, and if the rebuilding had proceeded at a more efficient pace that the whole situation in Iraq would have been much better in Iraq, thereby the possibility that the suicides occurring by our military would not be such a bad situation as it is now? To me it seems to be the failure of leadership that is the root cause here, certainly not the troops fault, most likely not the commanders on the ground, but those higher up who tried to do things differently and ultimately failed. The first name that pops into my head is Donald Rumsfeild, and by extension, his boss, President Bush. That is who I blame for the appalling situation. Please explain to me how it is that I am wrong, if you think I am. Thank you Rich.

  4. Anonymous
    February 2, 2008 at 12:13 am

    Bob,
    Your post was perfect! So very typical of those blined by hate that they can’t see the forest for the trees!

    What or what will you and you ilk do in 300+ days when he is gone?

    You said:
    “I agree that someone like myself who is anti-war should not make this an issue about the war in Iraq, however”…ahhh the great “however”! lol! Often used in place of “but”…both are great erasers of what preceeded them.

    Ya just couldn’t help yourself could ya?

    Is there a 12 step program for Bush haters? I’ll look into for you.

    But remeber step 4 means you have to apologize to all of us!

  5. Rich from Paso
    February 2, 2008 at 12:35 am

    You try to hard to make the occupation of Iraq the source of all of the world’s ills. I know that I am oversimplifying your statement, however it is no different than what you do. With every possibly and every if and the fact that you start off with asking me if it was feasible, I am left with no other impression that you want or even need to blame Bush and Co. for any bad news in Iraq. You said so as mush stating that you blame first Rumsfeld then Bush. Well, I really blame neither in this case. 17.5 suicide every 100,000 soldiers is a very small number of suicides considering that there are only 500,000 active duty soldiers. Include the Guard and Reserve, and combined you have 1.5 million and only 121 suicides during a high OPTEMPO counterinsurgency operation, which is what the military is doing over there now. To sound the alarm over a 20% increase in suicides is one thing, but when your increase of nineteen from the previous year from 102 to 121 in a million and half person Army, those are actually good numbers. You’d think with all of the shit going on over there according to the media, the number would be three or four hundred. That would be a problem. Again, to say that it is terrible that 19 more soldiers committed suicide than last year diminishes to nothing the work that all levels of leadership in the Army and that of the CSC doctors in and out of theater. Another thing is the numbers of “attempts”. My experience is that soldiers “think” about committing suicide, some even make the try. But most do not really want to commit self-murder, they just want someone to recognize that they are in pain and do something to help them. That is why most attempts fail. You can’t operate as if all attempts that fail are just crys for help. The Army trains that all attempts are serious. But in a lot of cases, the body’s innate desire for self-preservation takes over in a lot f the cases. The fact is that it is very, very easy to kill yourself if you want to. A guy hung himself from the shower nozzle in his barracks bathroom; he was almost six feet tall. So, basically he strangled himself to death. My point is that if you really want to die, you will make yourself die. However, once again, 121 soldiers did it successfully. A testiment to the work the Army as a whole is doing to protect the mental and spiritual well-being of its soldiers.

    So, no, I totally disagree with your hypothesis that President Bush and Rumsfeld should be personally blamed for 19 more soldiers committing suicide ove last year.

  6. NewsstandGreg
    February 4, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    Downtown Bob, Rich from Paso and onlookers,

    Much thoughtful comment on the suicide rate of US soldiers who have seen action in Iraq.

    I’m a Viet Nam veteran and became aware of the politics of war at that time. Later, the Washington D.C. Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed and built.

    Smaller replicas of the Vietnam Veterans memorial toured the country. One stopped for a few days in San Luis Obispo.

    I went. I saw the granite marble etched with the more than 58,000 names of the dead. Some were on the Western Pacific cruise with me on the USS Constellation, ’69-’70.

    Memories, feelings I never knew I had welled up from within me and I was overcome. Tears fell from my eyes. I could not stop it.

    More than three decades later, I can only guess why these men and women died: a war for oil; political hubris; we could do a better job than the French; etc.

    I’ve never heard a consistent reason why we sent so many of our best and brightest to those rice paddies, to Hamburger Hill, to die.

    And my body shook with sadness. Tears could not wash away the fact that I survived to talk about it.

    More than 35 years later the US again has sent its sons and daughters to fight…for oil? To win someone else’s civil war? To settle a centuries old conflict? To enrich military contractors working for global corporations, some headquartered in Dubai?

    All the while accompanied by iron-clad justifications and rationale?

    The man sitting in the White House does not count the cost of the occupation* in his budget estimates!

    Ours and the next generations will be paying for it. Our treasure spilled in the Middle East sands.

    It is all so sad.

    –Newsstand Greg

    *Call me a strict constitutionalist on this one, but it’s officially a “war” only when both houses of Congress issue a declaration of war.

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