WASHINGTON — Repeated and ever-longer war-zone tours are putting increasing pressure on military families, the Army said Thursday, helping push soldier suicides to a record rate.
There were 99 Army suicides last year — nearly half of them soldiers who hadn’t reached their 25th birthdays, about a third of them serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, told a Pentagon press conference that the primary reason for suicide is “failed intimate relationships, failed marriages.”
She said that although the military is worried about the stress caused by repeat deployments and tours of duty that have been stretched to 15 months, it has not found a direct relationship between suicides and combat or deployments.
“However, we do know that frequent deployments put a real strain on relationships, especially on marriages. So we believe that part of the increase is related to the increased stress in relationships,” she said.
“Very often a young soldier gets a ‘Dear John’ or ‘Dear Jane’ e-mail and then takes his weapon and shoots himself,” she said.
Lives put on hold
The report resonated on Army bases and among war supporters and critics around the nation.
“It can get pretty depressing even when you’re not in harm’s way,” said Sgt. Carlene Bishop, a 25-year-old from Reading, Pa., who serves in the 10th Mountain Division and returned from Iraq in May. “You’re away from home, you have to put your life on hold. I know soldiers whose marriages have broken up or who couldn’t pay their bills.”
“It just piles up, one thing on top of another,” said Banks. “There is help available, but I think a lot of soldiers don’t want to use it.”
The 2006 total — the highest rate in 26 years of record-keeping and the largest raw figure in 15 years — came despite Army efforts to set up new programs and strengthen old ones for providing mental health care to a force stretched by the longer-than-expected conflict in Iraq and the global counterterrorism war entering its sixth year.
The Army has sent medical teams annually to the battlefront in Iraq to survey troops, health care providers and chaplains. It has revised training programs and bolstered suicide prevention, is trying to hire more psychiatrists and other mental health professionals and is in the midst of an extensive program to teach all soldiers how to recognize mental health problems in themselves and others — to overcome a culture that attaches a stigma to seeking help.
“I am deeply concerned but not surprised” by the new report, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. She cited the stresses of longer and repeated tours of duty and her suspicion that many in the military don’t understand how to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I think there is just an inner denial among some that PTSD is ‘you’re just not tough enough,”’ she said.
The Army has been working to overcome the stigma associated with getting therapy for mental problems after finding that troops were avoiding counseling out of fear it could harm their careers.
Among findings in the new report:
- Of the 99 suicides, 30 were soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time of their deaths, 27 of them in Iraq.
- 69 were committed by troops who were not deployed in either war, though there were no figures immediately available on whether they had previously deployed.
- In a half million-person Army, the toll translated to a rate of 17.3 per 100,000, the highest since the Army started counting in 1980.
The rate has fluctuated over the years, with the low being 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suicide rate for U.S. society overall was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the latest year for which the agency has figures. The Army said that when civilian rates are adjusted to cover the same age and gender mix that exists in the Army, the rate is more like 19 to 20 per 100,000.
- The 99 suicides compare to 87 in 2005 and are the highest total since 102 were reported in 1991, the year of the Persian Gulf War, when there were more soldiers on active duty.
Investigations are still pending on two other deaths and if they are confirmed as suicides, the number for last year would rise to 101.
- About a quarter of those who killed themselves had a history of at least one psychiatric disorder. Of those, about 20 percent had been diagnosed with a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder and-or depression, and about 8 percent had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, including post traumatic stress disorder — a signature injury of the conflict in Iraq.
- Firearms were the most common method of suicide. Those who attempted suicide but did not succeed tended more often to take overdoses and cut themselves.
Tracy Willis, whose husband is a finance officer deployed in Iraq, said even though her husband works mostly inside a base, “There’s no safe job in the Army.”
“Being over there is a dangerous place,” said Willis. When her husband returned home to Fort Hood for a break, she noticed he was jumpy in his sleep, unlike himself.
“It was a big scare,” she said. “I don’t want him to come home and feel he can’t handle this.”
Though the Army has boosted programs for family members as well, Willis, 24, said she’s not sure what kind of help or information is available for soldiers like her husband. She’s heard discussions of post-traumatic stress disorder but wouldn’t know where to turn.
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