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Marine Corps takes a new approach to suicide prevention

A dramatic, multimedia presentation is intended to get troops' attention. An alarming rate increase is cited for the new level of seriousness.

March 28, 2009|Tony Perry

CAMP PENDLETON — Forty-one Marines marched on command to the front of the hall and stared at hundreds of their comrades assembled Friday for a presentation ordered by top generals to try to stem a rising rate of suicide.

The Marines represented the number who took their own lives last year, more than were killed in Iraq (34) or in Afghanistan (27).

Losing a Marine to suicide, Col. Lori Reynolds told the group, is like abandoning a Marine in combat.

Marines must be more diligent in looking for signs that one of them is thinking of suicide, she said.

"Last year, we left 41 Marines out there on the battlefield," Reynolds said. "There were signs."

The suicides equaled a rate of 19 per 100,000 troops, up from 33 suicides and a rate of 16.5 in 2007, and 25 suicides and a rate of 12.9 in 2006.

Of the 41, 36 were junior enlisted, three were non-commissioned officers and two were officers. Twenty-nine shot themselves; 12 hanged themselves.

Alarmed, Marine brass ordered that every Marine, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, receive a suicide prevention lecture in March, in addition to the annual one-year refresher course on spotting signs of would-be suicides.

Although the Marine Corps has provided suicide prevention instruction for a decade, there is concern that it has become a kind of "check-the-box" routine.

The new presentation -- a slide show and lecture scripted by the Marine Corps headquarters, and videos produced by individual commands -- is meant to add a level of seriousness.

"We can no longer afford to sleep through suicide-prevention training -- Marines are dying," Staff Sgt. Daniel Dyche told the group.

The lessons are standard: Watch for signs of hopelessness and helplessness among your buddies and immediately notify a superior -- a chaplain, an officer, a sergeant -- if you feel a Marine is on the verge of suicide.

But the presentation was more dramatic, more visual.

Dyche, for example, spoke of Sgt. Richard Stumpf, a drill instructor and "recruiting poster Marine," who fell into a spiral of marital problems, insecurity and alcohol abuse. A picture of Stumpf in his dress blues was on the screen as Dyche spoke.

Afraid to ask for help, Stumpf killed himself in 1994 after being arrested for drunken driving. His widow is now involved in the military's suicide prevention effort.

In a seven-minute video, officers and enlisted Marines from Camp Pendleton detailed the warning signs of suicide and listed the counseling programs open to Marines.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, commanding officer of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, appeared several times in the video, standing in a darkened room and talking directly to the camera about the obligation of Marines to take care of each other, in combat and stateside.

At the end, the camera pans back and Helland is shown to have been standing beside autopsy tables at the base morgue.

The goal of suicide-prevention, he said, is to "keep your Marines from needlessly ending up on tables like these."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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