May 30, 2008, Washington, DC – Three soldiers receiving Purple Hearts today at Walter Reed Army Medical Center spoke about the strains on soldiers in Iraq that contributed to a record number of suicides last year in the Army.
The Army reported Thursday there were 115 suicides in 2007, the highest number since it began keeping records of suicides in 1980. So far this year, there have been 38 confirmed suicides.
“There’s a lot of strain because probably a lot of people are ready to come home,” said Staff Sgt. Bennie Lamb, 40, of Macon, Ga., who was on his third tour in Iraq when he was wounded March 14 by a suicide bomber.
The uncertainty of extended tours, Lamb said, only adds to the pressure on soldiers.
“Don’t know when you’re leaving,” he said. “With this 15-month, 12-month tour thing, you know, that’s a lot of stress. That’s a lot of stress.”
Army officials said their statistics do not demonstrate a direct link between repeated deployments and a rise in suicides, but Army psychiatrist Col. Elspeth Ritchie acknowledged the intense stress of a combat zone takes a toll on soldiers.
“We see a lot of things that are going on in the war which do contribute,” Ritchie told Reuters. She pointed specifically to long months away from home, the horrors of combat, the ready availability of loaded weapons and the high activity levels of current Army operations.
Chief Warrant Officer Brian Callan, 42, of Adamstown, Md., an Apache pilot who was wounded Sept. 11 in Baghdad, said it’s especially stressful for anyone who goes off base.
“Anytime you go outside, especially flying,” he said. “If you were to go down out there, then obviously it’s a race against time trying to get you recovered.”
Shorter tours should help
Pfc. Luis Villalba-Cabrera, 22, was wounded by a roadside bomb just 24 days after deploying to Iraq last November. Being away from his family was his hardest adjustment.
“Just being away, being far away,” he said. “Communicating by phone – not the best way of communicating.”
Villalba-Cabrera said soldiers play video games and hang out with friends to keep their minds occupied as much as possible.
“It’s a stressful environment,” he said. “We are in a war conflict, so pretty stressful.”
All three agree the impending cutback in tours from 15 months to 12 months will be a big help.
“Oh, yes, oh, yes,” Villalba-Cabrera said, chuckling. “That few months makes a big difference. Being back at home as much as possible is always great.”
“I think that will help, for sure,” Callan said. “It definitely can’t hurt.”
“Six months would be a whole lot better,” said Lamb, laughing.