September 5, 2008 – Suicides among active-duty soldiers this year are on pace to exceed both last year’s all-time record and, for the first time since the Vietnam War, the rate among the general U.S. population, Army officials said yesterday.
Ninety-three active-duty soldiers had killed themselves through the end of August, the latest data show. A third of those cases are under investigation by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office. In 2007, 115 soldiers committed suicide.
Failed relationships, legal and financial troubles, and the high stress of wartime operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are the leading factors linked to the suicides, Army officials said.
The officials voiced concern that an array of Army programs aimed at suicide prevention has not checked a years-long rise in the suicide rate. Still, they said, the number of deaths probably would have climbed even more without such efforts.
“What does success look like? Frankly, we do not know,” said Col. Eddie Stephens, deputy director for human resources under the Army’s personnel division.
The Army’s suicide rate has increased from 12.4 per 100,000 in 2003, when the Iraq war started, to 18.1 per 100,000 last year. Suicide attempts by soldiers have also increased since 2003, Stephens said.
This year the death rate is likely to exceed that of a demographically similar segment of the U.S. population — 19.5 per 100,000, Stephens said. According to service officials, the last time that occurred was in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War, when the United States had a draft Army that suffered from serious discipline problems. In 1973, the nation created an all-volunteer force that has generally enjoyed an above-average level of mental health, a condition contradicted by the recent rise in suicides.
The latest Army prevention efforts include the hiring of hundreds of new mental health providers, the production of an interactive video on the subject, to be released this fall, and the introduction of an intervention program aimed at teaching junior Army leaders not only suicidal symptoms but actions that can prevent suicides.
The ACE program includes handing out laminated cards decorated with the ace of hearts that advise three steps — “ask,” “care” and “escort” — that spell “ACE”: Ask your buddy direct questions such as “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”; care for your buddy by taking away weapons; and escort your buddy to a military chaplain or health provider.
“Take away the weapon if someone is playing Russian roulette with it. . . . Unfortunately, people have not always done that,” said Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, the Army’s assistant surgeon general for force protection. Army prevention programs to this point have not trained soldiers adequately in what to do after they learn a comrade is in crisis, she added.
Another measure that Cornum said has proven effective is for Army commanders in combat zones to take a more “humanistic” approach and to return soldiers home so they can deal with personal crises and thereby “live another day to keep serving.”
Col. Scott McBride, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, said such measures have helped him prevent any suicides among his 4,000 soldiers, who have been deployed in northern Iraq for the past year.
“If they’re having a problem at home and we can keep a family together, reduce stress by sending a soldier home so he can take care of that problem, we’re doing that,” McBride said yesterday by video link from Iraq.