January 30, 2009 – A record number of active-duty soldiers killed themselves last year, top Army leaders reported Thursday, acknowledging that they are losing a battle to reverse a years-long rise in suicides, many of them by soldiers deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.
The 128 confirmed suicides last year – with 15 others pending confirmation – mark a new high since the Army began tracking them in 1980. Soldier suicides have risen each year since they totaled 67 in 2004, the first full year of the Iraq war. At least 171 soldiers, including those in the Army Reserve and National Guard, have killed themselves while deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq from the start of the military operations there in 2001 and 2003, the Army reported.
On Thursday, Army Secretary Pete Geren and other top Army officials unveiled training programs and initiatives aimed at reaching soldiers on the brink. They noted that, for the first time, the Army suicide rate exceeded the adjusted national suicide rate of about 19.5 people per 100,000.
“This is not business as usual. We need to move quickly to do everything we can to reverse this very disturbing number of suicides,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff. “We need to help our soldiers and their families understand that it’s OK to ask for help.”
Defense officials have not released overall suicide statistics in the military, but the numbers for Marines also reportedly rose in 2008. Army doctors said that troubles with intimate relationships, poor job performance, alcohol or drug abuse sparked some of the suicides. Stress from long deployments and multiple tours can play a role, often straining relationships at home; some soldiers have killed themselves after returning home and receiving new deployment orders, the Army confirmed.
However, officials also said that most of the suicides for deployed soldiers came during their initial deployments. Overall, the suicides were split about evenly among deaths in Afghanistan or Iraq, soldiers who had returned from deployment and those who never deployed.
In October, the Army announced it would embark on a $50 million study with the National Institute of Mental Health – the largest suicide study ever by the military. On Thursday it announced plans to step up its suicide training regimen, and ordered a “Stand Down” for suicide outreach beginning Feb. 15 that is designed to reach every soldier. However, the Army already has added hundreds of psychiatrists and psychologists and pushed videos and training through the ranks, with no sign of a turnaround.
Some think the nature of the wars and long deployments has placed soldiers at greater risk. By one estimate, 300,000 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
“In the Iraq war theater, there are no safe zones. Soldiers are getting shelled every day, roadside bombs every day,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, an advocacy group that has sued the Department of Veterans Affairs over delays and reported failures in addressing suicide risks.
“Service members are more likely to pull the trigger, more likely to see death and destruction, especially women and children who are helpless,” he said.
The stresses of multiple deployments have made a difficult readjustment tougher, said Dick Talbott, a Vietnam veteran who oversees 32 Vet Centers – including ones in Concord and Oakland – where veterans can receive counseling.
“These people are going back three or four or five times,” he said. “You steel yourself and keep yourself constantly on guard. That mechanism drives every part of your system. When you know you have to go back you continue to be amped in that way.”
Jim Schulze is a Vietnam veteran whose son, Marine gunner Jonathan Schulze, killed himself in 2007 after a tour in Iraq. Jonathan Schulze, a 25-year-old father with two Purple Hearts, told a VA hospital worker that he was suicidal but was placed on a waiting list, his father said. He hanged himself before the appointment.
Schulze, who lives in Minnesota, said he saw classic signs of PTSD in his son – sleeplessness, drinking, loss of concentration, flashbacks.
“When you get back, you’re lost. You’re out of the military. You don’t have any discipline, any regimen,” he said. “You’re kind of like a wandering lost soul. Once you got those skeletons in your closet, they’re going to rattle in there the rest of your life.”
Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072.