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Marine suicide rate up, prompting more prevention training

Commanders plan two-hour sessions for all their troops, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

February 28, 2009|Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — Alarmed by a rising suicide rate among their troops, Marine officials announced Friday that all Marines, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, will receive a two-hour suicide-prevention presentation next month.

Commanders have been ordered to record three- to five-minute videos as part of the presentations.

The sessions will remind troops to watch for warning signs among their buddies and to immediately inform their superiors if they believe a Marine is thinking of suicide.

In 2008, 41 Marines committed suicide, a rate of 19 per 100,000 troops. In 2007 the figure was 33 suicides (16.5 per 100,000), and in 2006 it was 25 (12.9 per 100,000).

And last year there were 146 suspected attempts, compared with 103 in 2007 and 99 in 2006, according to the Marine Corps.

Last year, the Marine Corps lost more troops to suicide than were killed in Iraq (32) or Afghanistan (27).

The Army had a similar increase. In 2008, 128 soldiers committed suicide, a rate of 20.2 per 100,000, up from 16.8 in 2007.

Navy Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, behavioral health affairs officer at Marine headquarters, said commanders had been ordered to make the presentations dramatic enough to grab the attention of their young troops.

"We don't want a presentation that will put them to sleep," said Werbel, who is in charge of devising suicide-prevention strategies.

At Camp Pendleton, video production is to start next week with generals and possibly chaplains, squad leaders noncommissioned officers. For dramatic effect, the video could include ambulances and scripted scenes of Marines distraught over financial or relationship problems.

Gen. James Amos, the assistant commandant, in November ordered additional training for noncommissioned officers to help them spot young Marines on the verge of suicide. In 2008, 30 of the 41 Marines who killed themselves were 17 to 24 years old.

What makes the rise in the rate of suicide particularly vexing is that nothing is different in the demographics or other statistical breakdown from previous years, Werbel said. Of the 41 Marines, 69% had been on at least one overseas deployment, roughly the same figure as the overall force.

The causes of the suicides follow a pattern seen by researchers for years: broken romances, problems at work, job dissatisfaction, and legal and financial problems. "Our analysis does not point us at one specific target," Werbel said.

The two-hour presentations will be in addition to the mandatory one-hour refresher course that every Marine receives annually. Beginning in boot camp, Marines are lectured about suicide and encouraged to discuss the issue with their drill instructors.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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