WASHINGTON (AP) – Multiple new efforts aimed at stemming suicides in the Army are falling short of their goal: The service anticipates another jump in the annual number of soldiers who killed themselves or tried to, including in the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.
As many as 121 soldiers committed suicide in 2007, an increase of some 20 percent over 2006, according to preliminary figures released yesterday.
The number who tried to commit suicide or injured themselves for some other reason jumped six-fold in the last several years – from 350 in 2002 to about 2,100 incidents last year.
Officials said an unknown portion of that increase was likely due to use of a new electronic tracking system that is more thorough in capturing health data than the previous system.
The increases come despite a host of efforts to improve the mental health of a force that has been stressed by lengthy and repeated deployments to the longer-than-expected war in Iraq, and the most deadly year yet in the now six-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.
“We have been perturbed by the rise despite all of our efforts,” said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general.
Those efforts include more training and education programs, the hiring of more mental health professionals and the addition of screening programs launched after a succession of studies found the military’s peacetime health care system overwhelmed by troops coming home from the two foreign wars.
“We know we’ve been doing a lot of training and education,” Ritchie told a Pentagon press conference. “Clearly we need to be doing more.”
The preliminary figures on 2007 show that among active duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops that have been activated there were 89 confirmed suicides and 32 deaths that are suspected suicides but still under investigation.
Less than a third of those who committed suicide – about 34 – happened during deployments in Iraq. That compared with 27 in Iraq the previous year. Four were confirmed in Afghanistan compared with three there in 2006.
The total of 121, if all are confirmed, would be more than double the 52 reported in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the Bush administration to launch its counter-terror war. The toll was 87 by 2005 and 102 in 2006.
Officials said the rate of suicides per 100,000 active duty soldiers has not yet been calculated for 2007. The 2006 toll of 102 translated to a rate of 17.5 per 100,000, the highest since the Army started counting in 1980, officials said. The rate has fluctuated over those years, with the low being 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001.
That toll and rate for 2006 is a revision from figures released in August. Officials earlier had reported that 99 soldiers had killed themselves in 2006 and two cases were pending – as opposed to the 102 now all confirmed. It’s common for investigations to take time and for officials to study results at length before releasing them publicly.
Ritchie said Thursday, as she did last year, that officials are finding that failed personal relationships are the main motive for the suicides, followed by legal and financial problems as well as job-related difficulties.
Long and repeated tours of duty away from home contribute significantly in that they weigh heavily on family relations and compound the other problems, officials said.
“People don’t tend to suicide as a direct result of combat,” Ritchie said. “But the frequent deployments strain relationships. And strained relations and divorce are definitely related to increased suicide.”
With the Army stretched thin by years of fighting the two wars, the Pentagon last year extended normal tours of duty from 12 months to 15 months and has sent some troops back to the wars several times. The Army has been hoping to reduce tour lengths this summer. But the prospect could depend heavily on what Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recommends when he gives his assessment of security in Iraq and troop needs to Congress in April.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a leading critic of the treatment given returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, called the new figures “heart-wrenching.”
“Until they come to grips with how long and frequent deployments are straining soldiers and shattering lives we will continue to see this frightening trend,” she said.
“And as the White House signals that there won’t be any further troop cuts beyond July, there is dwindling hope that things will turn around soon,” she said.
Because of improved security in Iraq in recent months, the administration has started to draw down extra troops sent last year. But Bush and commanders have been indicating reluctance to continue cuts beyond July out of fear the fragile security gains could be lost.