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Soldier suicide rate hits record high

115 dead in '07; Army says toll climbing in '08

Colonel Elspeth Ritchie discussed efforts to understand suicide among US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan yesterday. Colonel Elspeth Ritchie discussed efforts to understand suicide among US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan yesterday. (J. Scott Applewhite/associated press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Pauline Jelinek
Associated Press / May 30, 2008

WASHINGTON - Army soldiers committed suicide in 2007 at the highest rate on record, and the toll is climbing ever higher this year as long war deployments stretch on.

At least 115 soldiers killed themselves last year, up from 102 the previous year, the Army said yesterday.

Nearly a third of them died at the battlefront, 32 in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. But 26 percent had never been deployed to either conflict.

"We see a lot of things that are going on in the war which do contribute - mainly the longtime and multiple deployments away from home, exposure to really terrifying and horrifying things, the easy availability of loaded weapons, and a force that's very, very busy right now," said Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general.

"And so all of those together we think are part of what may contribute, especially if somebody's having difficulties already," she said at a Pentagon news conference.

Some common factors among those who took their own lives were troubled relationships, work problems, and legal or financial difficulties, officials said.

More US troops also died overall in hostilities in 2007 than in any of the previous years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Violence increased in Afghanistan with a Taliban resurgence, and the rate of deaths of US personnel increased in Iraq even as violence there declined in the second half of the year.

Increasing the strain on the force last year was the extension of deployments from 12 months to 15 months, a practice ending this year.

The 115 confirmed suicides among active-duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops who had been activated amounted to a rate of 18.8 per 100,000 troops - the highest since the Army began keeping records in 1980.

Two other deaths are suspected suicides but are still under investigation.

So far this year, the trend is comparable to last year, said Lieutenant Colonel Thomas E. Languirand, head of command policies and programs.

As of Monday, there had been 38 confirmed suicides in 2008 and 12 more deaths that are suspected suicides under investigation, he said.

The suicide rate continues to rise despite a host of efforts the Army has made to improve the mental health of a force under unprecedented stress from the longer-than-expected war in Iraq and the long and repeated tours of duty it has prompted.

The efforts include more training and education programs for troops and their families. Officials also have hired more mental health workers, increased screening to measure the psychological health of soldiers, and worked to reduce any stigma that keeps them from going for treatment when they have symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or other emotional problems.

"More than any time in history, our soldiers and their commanders are armed with information about combat and its impact on psychological health," said Brigadier General Rhonda L. Cornum, assistant surgeon general for force protection.

"We still believe there is more to be done, and we are committed to maximizing prevention" and treating those who need help, she said.

Suicides have been rising nearly each year of the five-year-old war in Iraq and the nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan. The 115 deaths last year and 102 in 2006 followed 85 in 2005 and 67 in 2004. The rate of 18.8 per 100,000 last year compared with a rate of 17.5 in 2006 and 9.8 in 2002 - the first full year after the start of the war in Afghanistan.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the overall suicide rate in the United States was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the latest year for which the agency has figures. The Army said that when civilian rates are adjusted to cover the same age and gender mix that exists in the Army, the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000.

The Army, which is the largest force serving in both wars, is the only service to release annual figures on suicides it gathers every year by polling troops at the war fronts on mental health issues.

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