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Army families learn suicide prevention

8 Ky. deaths since Jan. 1 spur outreach

By Kristin M. Hall
Associated Press / March 13, 2009
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - Fort Campbell officials struggling to stem a recent increase in military suicides hope family members will be able to spot signs that soldiers may be depressed and hesitant to seek help from the Army.

Of the 100 family members and spouses at a meeting at the post yesterday, more than a dozen raised their hands when asked if they knew someone who had committed suicide. Those family members - often the first to notice problems - received information and training on recognizing signs of suicidal thoughts - and how to get help for the soldiers at the installation along the Tennessee state line.

Eight Fort Campbell soldiers have killed themselves since the beginning of the year. Suicides in the Army have increased yearly since 2004 as soldiers deal with longer and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials at Fort Campbell declared a "state of emergency," and the Army has also made suicide prevention training mandatory for soldiers and leaders to combat the trend.

Fort Campbell hired a suicide prevention program manager, the first on a US military installation, to oversee family support and social work programs on the post and organize efforts to help soldiers struggling after multiple deployments.

Joe Varney's work is vital now as thousands of soldiers have returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan since the fall.

"They go from being in the combat zone one day to being in their home the next and our trick is to try to help them turn off that mind-set - that they are no longer in a combat situation," Varney said.

The Army tradition of assigning "Battle Buddies" has also been embraced for suicide prevention - every Fort Campbell soldier is required to carry a card with contact information for another soldier, usually someone they work with frequently.

Maggie McCoy, whose husband killed himself last year at their home near Fort Campbell, said she's happy to see the extra training. But she wants better access to mental health treatment for war veterans.

"I think the big focus needs to be on properly evaluating soldiers when they come back," said McCoy, a former soldier.

Her husband, Specialist Carl McCoy, made an appointment shortly before his death to see a therapist. It was canceled at the last minute.

Military officials have said they plan to keep a close eye on Fort Campbell and use this post's experience to assess the long-term impact of repeat deployments. Many soldiers at Fort Campbell have been deployed three or four times since the war began. Some studies show the length of combat exposure can be linked to suicide, said Dr. Matthew Friedman, executive director of the US Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The anxiety disorder is caused when people experience traumatic events. Specialists estimate 12 percent to 20 percent of Iraq vets and 6 percent to 11 percent of Afghanistan vets have PTSD. Sufferers can feel scared when reminded of the traumatic event, or feel emotionally numb, jittery, or irritable.

One of Fort Campbell's commanding generals, Brigadier General Stephen Townsend, said in a column in the post's newspaper last month that the "suck it up" mentality among soldiers must change in order to reduce the stigma of asking for help.

"We must work toward a more accepting, less biased stance on soldiers who seek help," Townsend said.

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