One of the first casualties of the war with Iraq came more than a week before allied forces dropped the first bomb or fired the first bullet.
Marine Pfc. James R. Dillon Jr., who had just turned 19 in the Kuwaiti desert, apparently took his own life, stepping into a portable toilet at a Marine staging area and shooting himself in the head with an M-16 rifle.
Dillon, a Pennsylvania native who trained in Twentynine Palms, left his comrades wondering if the pressure of the approaching war had been too much for the young man.
The death highlights a problem that has plagued the military, particularly the Marines, for years.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the military and a problem so serious it prompted the Defense Department to call recently for increased suicide-prevention efforts. Accidents, including motor vehicle crashes, are the leading cause.
Suicides claimed the lives of 118 active-duty servicemen and women in 2001 -- almost the number of American deaths so far in Iraq.
The overall suicide rate in the U.S. military is slightly higher than the rate for the nation's civilian population. But the military suicide rates are at least 30% lower when compared with those of civilians in the same age, gender and racial groups.
Still, military officials worry that the suicide rate appears to be on the rise in the Marines, the youngest and smallest of the nation's fighting units.
Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones issued a statement in November warning that the number of suicides in the Corps for the fiscal year starting in October 2002 was on a pace that would double the 20 suicides of the previous 12 months. "We must focus our attention on ensuring every possible measure is taken to battle this tragic and senseless loss of life," he said.
According to Marines and other experts, the higher suicide rates could be attributed to several factors: Marines are typically younger than their counterparts in the other military branches; the Marine Corps has a reputation for imposing higher standards on its members; and there is a pervasive attitude that any Marine who speaks openly about personal problems will be branded as weak or psychologically troubled.
Often, young Marines who feel pressure in trying to live up to the demands of the Corps will turn to alcohol to cope with the stress, said Candice Kirk, who retired last year after four years in the Corps.
"You have these young guys and, for the first time, no one is checking up on them, so they start drinking," she said.
The average age of an enlisted Marine is 18 1/2, according to the Department of Defense.
Many young Marines have entered the Corps without the maturity or social skills needed to cope with typical life problems, said Larry Stratton, a retired Marine who oversees suicide- prevention efforts at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.
"They get a 'Dear John' letter or a 'Dear Jane' letter, and to them that is the end of the world," he said.
Joseph Matoush, a retired Navy chaplain who served during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, suggested that some Marines become frustrated because they expect the Corps to teach them a skill they can turn into a career after they return to civilian life.
But he said many Marines learn only how to fire a weapon -- a skill that does not translate to many civilian jobs.
A Military Mind-Set
Another possible factor is the image of a Marine as a tough-as-leather warrior impervious to pain -- an attitude that the Marine Corps acknowledges can make it difficult for young Marines to talk about their personal problems.
Daniel Clark, a psychologist with the Washington State Patrol and an expert on suicides in law enforcement and the military, said the biggest challenge is breaking down the military mind-set that a soldier who talks about personal issues will never get promoted.
"There is a lot of investment in covering things up that we would not see in the civilian population," he said.
That situation is similar in the Navy, according to Petty Officer 3rd Class Miguel Rodriguez, who is aboard the aircraft carrier Nimitz in the Persian Gulf. He said in an e-mail that many sailors don't feel comfortable talking about their troubles.
"If you need help, they have a chaplain you can go talk to, but not many people do that," he said. "They just suck it in. It is true that most people have that attitude that they are supposed to be tough. That's why it's hard, if not impossible, to talk to them about any problems."
The Marines have taken several steps to reduce suicides. The Corps has distributed a suicide-prevention kit, including a video and brochures that give tips on recognizing warning signs.