Video: Soldier suicides exceed combat deaths

updated 2/6/2009 7:10:54 PM ET 2009-02-07T00:10:54

To battle a growing suicide rate, the Army may have to start teaching soldiers how to handle stress from the first day they take their entry oath, the service's top trainer said Friday.

"The new idea I suppose I would offer is getting at it right from the beginning of the career," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new four-star commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which operates 33 schools and training centers at 16 Army installations.

Dempsey, who led soldiers during two combat tours in Iraq, was questioned about the issue after addressing 1,150 soldiers who graduated from basic training at Fort Jackson, the Army's largest training installation.

According to figures obtained by The Associated Press, there were seven confirmed suicides last month, compared with five a year earlier. An additional 17 cases from January are under investigation.

Army Secretary Pete Geren acknowledged last week that officials have been stumped by the spiraling number of cases.

Dempsey said the issue was vital to an Army that has been at war for seven years and may well be at war for several more.

"I think we need to take a look at a comprehensive fitness program ... that right from the beginning of a young man or woman's experience in the Army, we begin building coping skills before the stress comes. Because once the stress hits, then you are really into last-minute intervention," Dempsey said.

The general said the Army is working with the Department of Defense on new approaches, and he hoped some action might be taken "within the next year."

Increasing stress
Dempsey said the new training could include elemental things, such as learning to balance a checkbook so a soldier with a young family doesn't fall into debt and open the way to further stress.

"What we are trying to do is identify skills we can give our soldiers, whether they are intellectual skills, physical skills, spiritual skills ... so that when the stress hits, you are armed to deal with it," Dempsey said.

The Army has already added suicide prevention training, more psychiatrists and other mental health staff, and programs both at home and at the battlefront for troops and their families.

Suicides have risen steadily since 2004 amid increasing stress on the force from long and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The service has rarely, if ever, released a month-by-month update on suicides. But officials said Thursday they wanted to re-emphasize "the urgency and seriousness necessary for preventive action at all levels" of the force.

In October, the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health signed an agreement to do a five-year study to identify factors affecting the mental and behavioral health of soldiers and come up with intervention strategies at intervals along the way.

Dempsey took over his new post after serving as acting commander of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for all military operations in the Middle East.

Dempsey commanded the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003-04, and later served in Baghdad for nearly two years in charge of the training and equipping of the Iraqi security forces.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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