Soldier suicides hit highest rate, 115 last year

By PAULINE JELINEK 12 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) Army soldiers committed suicide in 2007 at the highest rate on record, and the toll is climbing ever higher this year as long war deployments stretch on. At least 115 soldiers killed themselves last year, up from 102 the previous year, the Army said Thursday.

Nearly a third of them died at the battlefront 32 in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. But 26 percent had never deployed to either conflict.

"We see a lot of things that are going on in the war which do contribute mainly the longtime and multiple deployments away from home, exposure to really terrifying and horrifying things, the easy availability of loaded weapons and a force that's very, very busy right now," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general.

"And so all of those together we think are part of what may contribute, especially if somebody's having difficulties already," she told a Pentagon news conference.

Some common factors among those who took their own lives were trouble with relationships, work problems and legal and financial difficulties, officials said.

More U.S. troops also died overall in hostilities in 2007 than in any of the previous years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Violence increased in Afghanistan with a Taliban resurgence, and U.S. deaths increased in Iraq even as violence there declined in the second half of the year.

Increasing the strain on the force last year was the extension of deployments to 15 months from 12 months, a practice ending this year.

The 115 confirmed suicides among active-duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops who had been activated amounted to a rate of 18.8 per 100,000 troops the highest since the Army began keeping records in 1980. Two other deaths are suspected suicides but still under investigation.

So far this year, the trend is comparable to last year, said Lt. Col. Thomas E. Languirand, head of command policies and programs.

As of Monday, there had been 38 confirmed suicides in 2008 and 12 more death that are suspected suicides but still under investigation, he said.

The rate of suicide continues to rise despite a host of efforts the Army has made to improve the mental health of a force under unprecedented stress from the longer-than-expected war in Iraq and the long and repeated tours of duty it has prompted.

The efforts include more training and education programs for troops and their families. Officials also have hired more mental health workers, increased screening to measure the psychological health of soldiers and worked to reduce any stigma that keeps them from going for treatment when they have symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other emotional problems.

"More than any time in history, our soldiers and their commanders are armed with information about combat and its impact on psychological health," said Brig. Gen. Rhonda L. Cornum, assistant surgeon general for force protection.

"We still believe there is more to be done, and we are committed to maximizing prevention" and treating those who need help, she said.

Suicides have been rising nearly each year of the five-year-old war in Iraq and the nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan. The 115 deaths last year and 102 in 2006 followed 85 in 2005 and 67 in 2004. The rate of 18.8 per 100,000 last year compared to a rate of 17.5 in 2006 and 9.8 in 2002 the first full year after the start of the war in Afghanistan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suicide rate for U.S. society overall was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the latest year for which the agency has figures. The Army said that when civilian rates are adjusted to cover the same age and gender mix that exists in the Army, the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000.

Other findings in the 2007 report included:

_93 of the 115 suicides were active duty troops; 22 were members of the Army National Guard or Reserve who had been mobilized.

_Five were women.

_In addition to completed suicides, there were 166 attempted suicides among troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and 935 over the whole Army.

_Young, white, unmarried junior enlisted troops were the most likely to attempt suicide.

_Firearms were the most common method for those who succeeded in killing themselves. Overdoses and cutting were the most common for all attempts.

_30 percent of all cases reportedly involved drugs and/or alcohol; rates were higher for failed attempts.

_The majority of people who committed suicide did not have known histories of mental disorders.

_Six percent of suicides and eight percent of attempts reportedly were among people who had prior diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

_Fifty percent of soldiers who killed themselves had recently suffered a failed relationship with a spouse, girlfriend or other loved one.

_Seven percent of those who killed themselves and of those who attempted to had served multiple tours of duty to the wars.

_The highest number of attempts occurred among soldiers who were in the second quarters of their tours.

The Army, which is the largest force serving in both of the wars, is the only service to release annual figures on suicides as well as lengthy reports it gathers every year by polling troops at the war fronts on mental health issues.

President Bush's buildup of forces in Iraq last year the number peaked at over 170,000 led officials to increase tour lengths to 15 months. With a drawdown under way, officials are terminating the longer tours and returning to 12-month deployments.

Officials said they hoped that would help ease the strain on troops. But a number of other efforts have failed to make a dent in the rising suicide rates.

Among those efforts are a bolstered suicide prevention program, as well as a program last year in which 900,000 troops were taught how to recognize mental health problems in themselves and others.

Since troubled relationships rate as a main trigger for suicides, the chaplain corps is expanding its "Strong Bonds" program to teach troops and families how to improve relationship-building skills.

The "Battlemind" program helps troops and family member on what to expect before a deployment and identifies problems to look for after homecoming.

Officials also approved the hiring of more than 300 additional psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals and have so far hired 180 of them.
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