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Rescue for at-risk Marines

As suicides rise, the Corps is turning to the buddy system to help those on the edge.

September 10, 2010|Tony Perry

HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — The young Marine had just gotten a Dear John letter from a woman he had described as "my everything." Days later, he killed himself while on guard duty here in Helmand province.

None of his buddies, even those who had known him since boot camp, had seen the signs of the man's downward emotional spiral.

The pain of his death was visible on their faces as Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, the senior enlisted man in the Marine Corps, delivered a message he has repeated at a dozen bases and outposts throughout this dangerous Afghan desert region: Marines are committing suicide in record numbers, and something has to be done.

Last year, 52 Marines killed themselves, compared with 42 the previous year. The 2009 toll is the highest since record-keeping began, giving the Marine Corps the grisly distinction of having the highest rate of suicide of any U.S. military service.

The Corps, Kent said, can't wait five years for a study by an outside agency to propose solutions to the growing problem.

The answer, he said, lies within the Corps itself. Marines have a solemn duty to rescue other Marines from suicide, just as they would come to their aid in combat, he said.

At each location, young Marines listened intently. But at the outpost where the young Marine had killed himself, the troops seemed particularly struck by Kent's admonition. (In deference to his family's privacy, The Times is not disclosing the Marine's name or unit.)

Of the 52 who committed suicide last year, 16 had never deployed to a war zone; 25 committed suicide after such a deployment; and 11 killed themselves while in Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa. Along with the deaths, there were 154 attempts, also a record.

Some kill themselves at the beginning of a deployment, others soon after returning home, unable to adjust to garrison duty or civilian life. Some suicides occur just as a battalion is preparing to return home, possibly because the Marine feels that he did not perform well in the war zone.

The unrelenting stress of back-to-back deployments is a key factor in the rise in suicides, researchers say. Until recently, the "dwell time" has been 1:1: for example, seven months at home, seven months deployed. Marine leaders hope the current dwell time of 2:1, or 14 months at home for each seven months deployed, will help.

Other factors include relationship, family and money problems, run-ins with authority figures and a sense of isolation.

Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, and of the Iraq war in 2003, the Marines have tried various programs to sharpen awareness of suicide in their ranks and to break down the stigma that keeps Marines from seeking help.

Recruits in boot camp are told to watch out for their buddies. Sergeants are given training in how to spot Marines nearing the edge. Chaplains and medical corpsmen are tutored on how to intervene when a Marine begins showing signs of depression.

Still, the rate has increased, and last year, for the first time, it exceeded that of a similar age group in civilian life.

For U.S. civilians age 18 through 25, the rate is 20 suicides per 100,000; in 2009, the Marine Corps' rate was 24 per 100,000. The rate also exceeded that of the Army (now at 22 per 100,000) for the first time.

In response, the Corps is preparing a series of updated videos for Marines, showing realistic scenarios of a fictional "Cpl. Decker" who, with marital and job problems, begins thinking of suicide. Each video will be tailored to a specific rank, a kind of "Rashomon" approach showing how a similar problem is viewed differently from various angles.

The Marines are also developing a "de-stress" telephone line with former Marines and corpsmen available to provide confidential counseling.

The idea, said Col. Grant Olbrich, section head of the Marine Corps Suicide Prevention Program, is to "leverage" a culture that calls for the men and women to "leave no Marine behind," in the famous combat motto.

"It doesn't mean they are less of a Marine if they need some help to get through a rough patch in their lives," Olbrich said in a telephone interview from his office at Quantico, Va.

For the Marines at this Helmand province outpost, the death that mattered most was that of the Marine who killed himself there without apparent warning.

"We never knew that he was hurting," one Marine said quietly.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

Perry was recently on assignment in Afghanistan.

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