WASHINGTON — Soldier suicides this year are almost sure to top last year's, but a recent decline in the pace of such deaths could mean the U.S. Army is making progress in stemming them, officials said Tuesday.
Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli said that as of Monday, 140 active duty soldiers are believed to have died of self-inflicted wounds. That's the same as were confirmed for all of 2008.
"We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year — this is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of these numbers in any way," he said.
Army officials told NBC News that the number did not factor in soldiers who were not on active duty at the time of their death. Another 71 National Guard and Reserve soldiers who weren't deployed at the time of death were also possible or confirmed suicide victims, NBC News reported.
"Every single loss is devastating," he told NBC News.
Chiarelli said there has been a tapering off in recent months from the large numbers of January and February.
"I do believe we are finally beginning to see progress being made," Chiarelli told a Pentagon press conference.
He attributed that to some unprecedented efforts the Army has been trying to work with soldiers through new programs.
Using some U.S. bases as examples of the trend downward, Chiarelli said there were 18 suicides reported this year at Fort Campbell in Kentucky — and that 11 of those were in the first four months of the year.
At Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, there were seven all year so far — five in the first five months of the year and only two since.
Programs and problems
The Army widened suicide prevention in March in an attempt to make rapid improvements in its programs and policies. Army efforts to curb suicides also were increased Oct. 1 with the beginning of the so-called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which aims to put the same emphasis on mental and emotion strength as the military traditionally has on physical strength. Basic training now includes anti-stress programs as part of a broader effort to help soldiers deal with the aftereffects of combat and prevent suicides.
But Chiarelli told NBC News the Army faced a shortage of mental health professionals, and that he was especially concerned about the dramatic shortage of substance abuse counselors.
Chiarelli said that despite hiring almost 900 mental health professionals over the past two years, the Army still needed about 800 more. He also said that as substance abuse among soldiers had risen recently, and the Army needed between 270 and 300 substance abuse counselors, NBC News reported.
The abuse, Chiarelli added, had a direct link to mental health problems in soldiers.
Still, another jump in suicide figures for 2009 would make it the fifth straight year that such deaths have set a record as troops continue to come under the stress of two overseas wars. It compares with 140 in 2008, 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006.
The numbers kept by the service branches do not show the whole picture of war-related suicides because they do not include deaths after people have left the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks those numbers and says there were 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the wars.
The true incidence of suicide among military veterans is not known, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service. Based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VA estimates that 18 veterans a day — or 6,500 a year — take their lives, but that number includes vets from all previous wars.
NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube contributed to this Associated Press report.
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