updated 3/18/2009 7:50:18 PM ET 2009-03-18T23:50:18

A top Army commander said Wednesday the strain of long and repeated deployments was a big factor in the spike in suicides among Army personnel.

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"It's a stressed and tired force," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee. He noted that some troops remain on 15-month deployments to Iraq that won't end until later this year.

"We can do a lot, but we can't control the demand, and we expect the demand for all of 2009 and into 2010," Chiarelli said.

Last year, the Army had 140 suspected suicides among active-duty troops, an all-time high. It reported 24 suspected suicides in January, followed by 18 suspected last month. Each military branch, however, saw an increase in the number of suicides among its ranks from 2007 to 2008.

Chiarelli vowed to tackle the problem aggressively by looking for ways to mitigate the stress on soldiers and eliminate the stigma associated with getting mental health help. One thing he was doing, he said, was receiving a briefing on the circumstances leading up to every suicide, so he can better understand the problem.

He said suicide is having an impact on every segment of the Army, affecting soldiers of all ranks and both men and women. He said about two-thirds of those who had committed suicide last year were either deployed or had deployed. A vast majority, he said, were dealing with some type of relationship problem, and many had legal, financial or occupational difficulties.

Top officers from each of the other branches joined Chiarelli. Each said a shortage of mental health workers was a problem.

Sen. Ben Nelson who chaired the hearing, said the rise in suicides shows that "despite the services' best efforts, there is still more to be done to prevent military suicides."

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Army is confronting suicides forcefully. He said repeated and long deployments take a toll.

"What I am told is that one of the principal causes of suicide among our men and women in uniform is broken relationships," Gates said during a news conference. "And it's hard not to imagine that repeated deployments don't have an impact on those relationships."

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