Despite prevention efforts, U.S. military suicides rise

Stars and Stripes
By Halimah Abdullah, McClatchy Newspapers
January 16, 2010

Eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have etched indelible scars on the psyches of many of the nation’s service members, and the U.S. military is losing a battle to stem an epidemic of suicides in its ranks.

Despite calls by top Pentagon officials for a sea change in attitudes about mental health, millions of dollars in new suicide-prevention programming and thousands of hours spent helping soldiers suffering from what often are euphemistically dubbed “invisible wounds,” the military is losing ground.

The Department of Defense Friday reported that there were 160 reported active-duty Army suicides in 2009, up from 140 in 2008. Of these, 114 have been confirmed, while the manner of death in the remaining 46 remains to be determined.

“There’s no question that 2009 was a painful year for the Army when it came to suicides,” said Col. Christopher Philbrick, the deputy director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force, in a statement, despite what he called “wide-ranging measures last year to confront the problem.”

While the military’s suicide rate is comparable to civilian rates, the increase last year is alarming because the armed services traditionally had lower suicide rates than the general population did.

“I look at the numbers of each service, and that rate has gone up at the same rate across the services,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a gathering of military mental health professionals and advocates last week. “This isn’t just a ground force problem.”

Some of the suicides are young men, fresh from deployments and haunted by memories, who shoot themselves after they return from their second or third tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, or when romantic relationships turn sour, sometimes due to long separations or post-traumatic stress.

Others are career officers who quietly nurse addictions to drugs or alcohol and finally decide to silence their ghosts.

An increasing number are female soldiers, who rarely committed suicide before but now are killing themselves at a much higher rate. …