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Army suicide rate hits a three-decade high, officials say

The 2008 estimated rate - 20.2 suicides per 100,000 soldiers - is, for the first time, higher than the national average. Repeated combat deployments are believed to be a contributing factor.

January 30, 2009|Julian E. Barnes and Jia-Rui Chong

WASHINGTON AND LOS ANGELES — The suicide rate among Army soldiers reached its highest level in three decades in 2008, military officials said Thursday in a report that pointed to the inadequacy of anti-suicide efforts undertaken in recent years.

At least 128 Army soldiers took their own lives last year -- an estimated suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000, a sharp increase from the 2007 rate of 16.8.

It marked the first time the Army rate has exceeded the national suicide rate for the corresponding population group -- 19.5 per 100,000 -- since the Pentagon began systematically tracking suicides nearly 30 years ago.

The 2008 figure does not include 15 additional deaths under investigation that officials suspect were suicides.

Also Thursday, Marine Corps officials revised their suicide numbers upward, reporting a rate of 19.0 per 100,000 in 2008, the highest for the Marines since 1995.

"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," Army Secretary Pete Geren said.

Army officials believe that contributing factors include emotional and psychological stress caused by repeated combat deployments, along with the toll that the tours have taken on marriages.

About a third of suicides occur during deployments abroad, a third after deployments and a third among soldiers who never deploy.

"We all come to the table believing stress is a factor," said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff.

Between 2003 and 2007, the Pentagon frequently extended combat tours and barred soldiers from leaving at the end of their enlistment.

In 2007, it extended all Army deployments abroad to 15 months, from 12.

The blanket extension ended last year, and units beginning new tours now will serve only a year. However, some units assigned 15-month tours must complete them before the longer deployments end later this year.

Dr. Judith Broder, founder of the Soldier's Project, a counseling service for troops and their families in the Los Angeles area, said the repeated deployments caused some soldiers and Marines to lose faith in religion or themselves. Some become suicidal after abusing drugs or alcohol and they lose rational judgment.

"They become extremely depressed and really hopeless, like, 'This is never going to end. I'm never going to be myself again. I'm never going to be able to be with my family again,' " she said.

Jose Coll, chairman of the Military Social Work Program at USC, also blamed frequent and lengthy deployments. "And when the soldier comes back, it's not like he's on vacation. He comes back to training, and that creates a lot of stress for the family," said Coll, who served in the Marine Corps.

Army officials said they realized that longer tours would increase strains on soldiers and their families, and they attempted to head off problems by increasing the money they spent on assistance programs to $1.5 billion, from $700 million.

"We could feel the pressure families and soldiers were under," Geren said.

The Army and Defense Department stepped up mental health screening and hired more mental health professionals. The military also devoted more resources to treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries -- battlefield wounds that have compounded stress on soldiers and their families.

Still, some say those efforts -- particularly the mental health screening -- have been inadequate.

"Until the Department of Defense starts taking aggressive action, the suicide crisis will get worse," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "We are looking at the tip of an iceberg of a social catastrophe unless the military and VA start fighting stigma and start getting help for the veteran."

Cindy Williams, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is an expert on military personnel systems, said that reporting a mental health infirmity cut against the ethos of the Army.

"In the Army, there is a culture that says you don't get sick," she said. "Even if the Army wants to change the culture, it is hard for a soldier to go to a supervisor and say, 'I am thinking suicidal thoughts.' "

In November, a Marine safety board called for bolstering suicide prevention efforts by improving training for officers and by incorporating anti- suicide training into the martial arts program.

In the Army, Geren said he had placed Chiarelli at the head of a new effort to reduce suicides.

As a first step, the Army will begin training soldiers in how to identify people who may be at risk of suicide and how to get help.

"We obviously haven't turned this around yet," said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's top behavioral health expert. "This really has to be a national effort where everyone is reaching out to soldiers and their families."

Last year, the Army announced a five-year initiative with the National Institute of Mental Health to study military suicides and ways to prevent them.

The Army reported that in 2008, 31 suicides occurred in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan. There are far fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

The Marine Corps this week reported that 41 Marines had committed suicide in 2008, for a rate of 19 per 100,000 troops, the highest rate since 1995 when it was slightly under 20 per 100,000. Among the 41 Marine suicides, six were in Iraq. The Marine Corps had said that the rate for 2008 was 16.8 per 100,000, only marginally higher than the 2007 rate of 16.5. But officials said that figure was incorrect because of a computational error.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.

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