Video: Fighting military suicides

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NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 1/29/2009 3:46:54 PM ET 2009-01-29T20:46:54

Suicide rates among active-duty U.S. military personnel are continuing to rise even as the Defense Department dedicates more resources to identifying troubled service members and getting them the help they need.

At least 128 soldiers were confirmed to have killed themselves in 2008, compared with 115 in 2007, 102 in 2006 and 87 in 2005, the Army said Thursday. Last year’s figure is likely to rise even higher, because the Army is investigating at least 15 other deaths as possible suicides.

The continuing rise in Army suicides was first reported Wednesday by NBC News and msnbc.com, which found that the problem is reflected across the military services. Forty-one Marines committed suicides last year, up from 33 in 2007, while the Navy and the Air Force saw smaller increases, defense officials told NBC News on condition of anonymity.

Army officials calculated the suicide rate at 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, the highest in its history and higher than the civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the civilian suicide rate was 11 per 100,000 Americans in 2004, the last year for which fully adjusted national figures are available.

Exact comparisons could be misleading because the makeup of the Army does not mirror that of American society as a whole. But among the segment of the civilian population  that most closely reflects the demographic makeup of the military — males ages 18 to 24 — about 19.8 Americans committed suicide per 100,000 in 2004, CDC figures show.

The Army said it would conduct a “stand-down” between Feb. 15 and March 15 to train soldiers to recognize suicidal behavior and how to intervene at a soldier-to-soldier level.

“We want the families who have lost loved ones to suicide to understand how deeply we feel their loss and that we are committed to doing everything possible to prevent this tragedy in our Army,” Army Secretary Pete Geren said.

Problem difficult to get a grip on
Officials said the Marine Corps’ rate was 19 per 100,000 Marines in 2008, while for the Air Force, it was 11.5, and for the Navy, it was 11.3. All three rates represented statistically significant rises over the same figures in 2007.

While the active-duty military force is expanding, the rate of suicides is growing even faster among all four services, a phenomenon that has alarmed defense officials as stress on service members builds with the U.S. deployment in Iraq nearing the six-year mark.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, acknowledged Thursday that “stress is a factor. It is a factor in this.”

Post-traumatic stress disorderArmy Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, said active-duty service members were under tremendous strain.

“They’ve lost buddies,” Sutton said. “They’ve been exposed to the most corrosive environment known to warfare — physically, psychologically, spiritually and morally.”

Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, commanding officer of the Army base at Fort Carson, Colo., said the military still suffered from a shortage of behavioral health professionals, even thought strides have been made in the past year. The Army, for example, has allocated $50 million to study the causes of military suicides and to bolster its programs to identify and help troubled soldiers.

The American Psychological Association reported in 2007 that there was a 40 percent vacancy rate in active-duty psychologists in the Army.

“With the stress that our soldiers and families are under, it’s taken a toll,” Graham said.

Fighting the stigma
A major problem is the stigma attached to service members who seek counseling and other mental health assistance, said Graham, whose youngest son, Kevin, 21, committed suicide in June 2003 as an ROTC cadet.

Eight months later, Graham was considered retiring when his other son, Jeff, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

Until that point, Graham said, he himself thought “it was a sign of weakness” for a soldier to acknowledge emotional trauma.

But “guess what?” he said. “I actually found out what I was putting my family through.”

The epidemic of suicides in the military is a wake-up call, said Graham, who with his wife is now active with the Suicide Prevention Action Network.

“We could either let this tragedy be the book of our life, or we could let it be a tragic chapter in the book of our life,” Graham said. “And we’ve chosen the second, to make these [just] sad chapters in our life, but to make the overall book hopeful.”

“The message is it’s OK to ask for help,” he said. “It’s a sign of strength and not weakness to come forward.”

Courtney Kube covers the Defense Department for NBC News. Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. NBC stations KOAA of Colorado Springs, Colo., and WOAI of San Antonio, Texas, contributed to this report.

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