Army Struggles with Rising Suicide

Chicago Tribune

March 3, 2008 – Pahrump, Nevada – All Spec. Travis Virgadamo ever wanted was to be a soldier.

But two years after his father signed papers for him to enlist at age 17, things went terribly wrong. Last August, three months after arriving in Iraq, he walked outside his barracks and killed himself with his rifle.

When the news crackled over the Bonecrusher Troop’s radio, 1st Lt. Kyle Graham knew immediately that it was Virgadamo, the troubled soldier who had been on suicide watch since June, when he threatened to kill himself while on patrol.

“I feel like we all had some responsibility to make sure this didn’t happen,” Graham said shortly after the incident. “It’s our responsibility to make sure we take care of our fellow soldiers.”

Virgadamo, whose case has been cited on the Senate floor and in congressional hearings, is a symbol of a growing problem facing the military as soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars face repeated and extended deployments.

Last year, 121 soldiers in the Army and active-duty National Guard and Reserves committed suicide, the largest number since the military began keeping records in 1980.

That is more than double the 52 suicides reported in 2001, the year the war in Afghanistan began, according to a recent Pentagon report. The report also cited 2,100 attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries last year — six times the 350 reported in 2002, prior to the start of the Iraq war.

Efforts fail to stunt rise

The numbers are rising despite efforts by the military to beef up its mental-health programs. Faced with growing scrutiny over those programs in Congress and the news media, the Army has sought to improve services for soldiers, spending more than $1 million last year on additional counselors, training and screening, Army officials said.

“We are concerned,” said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army’s chief psychiatrist. “We are doing a lot already to assist in suicide prevention, but clearly we need to do more.”

It is not uncommon to see an increase in suicides during war, said Coleen Boyle, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and co-author of a mortality study on Vietnam veterans.

The current suicides, one-quarter of which occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, are due primarily to strained personal relationships exacerbated by repeated deployments that last up to 15 months, Ritchie said. That, coupled with the ready availability of firearms, often can become a deadly combination.

Ritchie said there is no indication that the stress of combat plays a major role in the suicides. But 19-year-old Virgadamo, his relatives said, was distressed over what he had seen in Iraq.

There were signs that he was having trouble long before he deployed. According to his grandmother, Katie O’Brien, Virgadamo had been sent to an anger-management program while in boot camp. She said he also was placed on suicide watch at the Army’s Ft. Stewart in Georgia and prescribed the antidepressant Prozac shortly before he deployed. Last June, officials in Iraq placed him on suicide watch again.

Informed of Virgadamo’s death, “I asked, ‘How many others lost their life with him?'” said O’Brien, 65. “They stood there for a minute and took a deep breath and said, ‘No others. It was self-inflicted.’ I went ballistic, and I screamed, ‘No, no no!'”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) said Virgadamo’s death and the growing number of suicides could signal that the Army is overlooking mental-health problems because it is overstretched by repeated deployments.

“This young man should not have gone back to Iraq,” Berkley said.

‘Deployed on Prozac’

While Ritchie would not specifically address Virgadamo’s case, which is under investigation, she said it is not uncommon for soldiers to return to active duty while prescribed mild antidepressants such as Prozac or Paxil. She estimated 5 percent fit in that category.

“If soldiers are treated and their symptoms are in remission and they are not having side effects, they can be deployed on Prozac,” said Ritchie, who compiled the Army’s suicide data.

David Rudd, head of the psychology department at Texas Tech University, said soldiers diagnosed with a psychiatric illness are vulnerable going back into a combat zone.

“Today, most people need medication and therapy,” said Rudd, a former Army psychologist. “My concern is about the availability of therapy in those combat zones.”

Shortly after arriving in Iraq, Virgadamo asked Graham and Sgt. 1st Class Chhay Mao if he could join their platoon. Mao said Virgadamo was a hard worker, but he worried that they would have to expend too much energy keeping an eye on the troubled young man. So Virgadamo transferred to another platoon.

After he threatened to kill himself, he was excused from patrol duty and given a desk job. The trigger bolt was removed from his weapon, making it useless, and he was ordered to undergo counseling.

On Aug. 30 he was cleared for duty and given back the bolt. About 10:30 that night, he shot himself.

The previous month, Virgadamo had been so depressed, his grandmother said, that the Army sent him home on leave for two weeks.

“It was my understanding from him that it was a leave to kind of see if he could be with his family and regroup,” she said. “Maybe it would be beneficial to him, but I don’t think 15 days was long enough.”

O’Brien’s daughter, Jacque Juliano, 46, and her husband, Travis Virgadamo Sr. adopted their son at birth. They divorced when he was 4.

Two days before his death, Virgadamo called his grandmother.

“I said, ‘Are you doing OK?’ He said, ‘Yeah Grandma, just keep praying for me.'”

“I just said, ‘Sweetheart, I’m praying for you and all of you over there.’ I said, ‘It’s going to be OK, Travis. It’s going to be OK, baby.'”

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