Video: Soldier suicides

updated 3/5/2009 2:56:25 PM ET 2009-03-05T19:56:25

After an alarming spike in soldier suicides in January, the U.S. Army said Thursday there were another 18 suspected suicides last month.

The increase continues a four-year rise in an Army under stress from two wars.

"It's a very high number, it's very disturbing," Col. Thomas Languirand, head of the Army suicide prevention program, said of February's toll. "We're taking every effort we can think of" to try to bring it down.

The Army normally releases figures on self-inflicted deaths only once a year. But due to the large number of 24 suspected in January, officials decided to announce monthly figures to focus attention on the problem and on prevention programs available.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said there were two confirmed suicides in February and 16 suspected but still being investigated — compared with 11 confirmed deaths in the same month of 2008.

Usually the vast majority of suspected suicides are eventually confirmed, but the investigations can take months. For instance, when January figures were first released last month, officials said there were seven confirmed and 17 pending, a figure updated Thursday to 12 confirmed and 12 pending.

Speaking by telephone to a group of bloggers, Chiarelli noted that officials already have bolstered suicide prevention programs and are having special training sessions this month and next, but he said no one thing can solve the problem.

The military has added mental health staff, operates hotlines for troops to call, and has programs to counter stress on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no breakdown on how many of the suicides happened at the warfront.

Amid unprecedented stress on the military in fighting the wars, troops are having difficulty keeping their marriages and personal relationships together and are suffering financial, legal and work problems. Officials over months have pointed to these as main reasons for the increased suicides, and Chiarelli said Thursday that unemployment also seemed a factor in February suicides among National Guard and Reserve members. Members of the National Guard are part-time soldiers who can be mobilized for active duty.

Chiarelli updated figures for 2008, saying 138 suicides had been confirmed and five deaths were still being investigated. He said it appears the Army will see a rate of 20.5 suicides per 100,000, surpassing the civilian rate for the first time since record keeping began in 1980.

The civilian rate is about 19.5 per 100,000 when adjusted to mirror the gender and age mix in the Army.

More on U.S. military suicides

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