The number of U.S. Army soldiers who took their own lives increased last year to the highest total since 1993, despite a growing effort by the Army to detect and prevent suicides.
In 2005, a total of 83 soldiers committed suicide, compared with 67 in 2004, and 60 in 2003 — the year U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq. Four other deaths in 2005 are being investigated as possible suicides but have not yet been confirmed. The totals include active duty Army soldiers and deployed National Guard and Reserve troops.
“Although we are not alarmed by the slight increase, we do take suicide prevention very seriously,” said Army spokesman Col. Joseph Curtin.
“We have increased the number of combat stress teams, increased suicide prevention and training, and we are working very aggressively to change the culture so that soldiers feel comfortable coming forward with their personal problems in a culture where historically admitting mental health issues was frowned upon,” Curtin said.
Many served in Iraq
Of the confirmed suicides last year, 25 were soldiers deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — which amounts to 40 percent of the 64 suicides by Army soldiers in Iraq since the conflict began in March 2003.
The suicide rate for the Army has fluctuated over the past 25 years, from a high of 15.8 per 100,000 in 1985 to a low of 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001. Last year it was nearly 13 per 100,000.
The Army recorded 90 suicides in 1993, with a suicide rate of 14.2 per 100,000.
The Army rate is higher than the civilian suicide rate for 2003, which was 10.8 per 100,000, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the Army number tracked closely with the rate for civilians aged 18-34, which was 12.19 per 100,000 in 2003.
When suicides among soldiers in Iraq spiked in the summer of 2003, the Army put together a mental health assessment team that met with troops. Investigators found common threads in the circumstances of the soldiers who committed suicide — including personal financial problems, failed personal relationships and legal problems.
Army increase prevention efforts
Since then, the Army has increased the number of mental health professionals and placed combat stress teams with units. According to the Army, there are more than 230 mental health practitioners working in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with “about a handful” when the war began, Curtin said.
Soldiers also get cards and booklets that outline suicide warning signs and how to get help.
But at least one veterans group says it’s not enough.
“These numbers should be a wake-up call on the mental health impact of this war,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “One in three soldiers will come back with post traumatic stress disorder or comparable mental health issues, or depression and severe anxiety.”
Rieckhoff, who was a platoon leader in Iraq, said solders there face increased stress because they are often deployed to the warfront several times, they are fighting urban combat and their enemy blends in with the population, making it more difficult to tell friend from foe.
“You don’t get much time to rest and with the increased insurgency, your chances of getting killed or wounded are growing,” he said. “The Army is trying harder, but they’ve got an incredibly long way to go.”
He added that while there are more psychiatrists, the soldiers are still in a war zone, “so you’re just putting your finger in the dam.”