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Suicide epidemic in U.S. Army: July was worst month yet, Pentagon says

Anna MulrineThe Christian Science Monitor

It is perhaps the greatest source of frustration and heartache within the US military, even as the war in Afghanistan winds down: the continuing rise of the suicide rate among troops.

July was the worst month on record since the Army began tracking suicide rates: 38 soldiers took their own lives, according to figures released Thursday by the Pentagon.

Trying to figure out how to arrest those numbers has been the ongoing quest of military officials for years.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta shared his frustration over the force’s inability to do so in June, during a suicide prevention conference that called for emphasizing the “mental fitness” of troops as ardently as their “physical fitness.”

Even so, Mr. Panetta lamented that military suicides “continue to move in a troubling and tragic direction.”

So far in 2012, the number of suicides among active-duty military personnel in all branches is up 22 percent compared with the same time last year. In 2011, a total of 301 troops took their lives. This year’s total may reach as many as one death per day from suicide.

“That is an epidemic,” Mr. Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) last month. “Something is wrong.”

Today, suicide is the most frequent cause of death among Army forces, surpassing combat deaths and motor vehicle accidents, according to Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff. From 2004 to 2009, the suicide rate within the force doubled.

The demographics are also changing. For the first time, there are more suicides among longer-serving non-commissioned officers than among young soldiers.

The Pentagon is concerned, too, about the suicide rate among military veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly as one million troops prepare to leave the military by 2017. The rate among these veterans is higher than for active duty service members.

Lawmakers in particular point to a backlog of claims for care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “The system is going to be overwhelmed,” Panetta acknowledged at the July HASC hearing. “Let’s not kid anybody – it’s already overwhelmed.”

According to a Pentagon report released in January, “approximately 950 veterans under VA care attempted suicide each month between October 2008 and December 2010.”

The Pentagon has struggled to pinpoint risk factors that will help them reach out to troubled troops. They have increased the number of counselors who might be able to talk to troops about the romantic woes that often come with multiple deployments (The Pentagon report found that half of all soldiers who committed suicide had recently had a failed relationship).

The counselors are also meant to help troops with substance and alcohol abuse. Nearly a third of those who commit suicide also have struggled with drugs, and one quarter of soldiers were drinking before they killed themselves.

Some senior Army officials have also spoken about the need for greater gun control among troops recently returning from war (68 percent of soldiers who kill themselves use guns).

“The majority of [suicides] have two things in common: alcohol and a gun. That’s just the way it is,” Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s former vice chief of staff, told the Monitor this January, shortly before he retired. “And when you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house.”

However a new NRA-backed law prohibits the military from engaging in discussions about weapons and safety, military officials warn. “I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off-post whether that soldier has a privately-owned weapon,” General Chiarelli says.

Lawmakers say they may revisit the legislation, which took effect at the end of 2010.

For now, military officials say, the search for answers continues.

“Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army,” Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the Army’s number two officer, warned in a statement on the heels of the Thursday release of the figures. “That said, I do believe suicide is preventable.”