Saturday, January 31, 2009

Army suicides at 3-decade high

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Suicides among U.S. soldiers rose last year to the highest level in decades, the Army said Thursday.

At least 128 soldiers killed themselves in 2008. But the final count is likely to be considerably higher because 15 more suspicious deaths are being investigated, Army officials said.

A new training and prevention effort will start next week. Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, made a plea for more U.S. mental-health professionals to sign on to work for the military.

"We are hiring and we need your help," she said.

The new suicide figure compares with 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006 and is the highest since record-keeping began in 1980. Officials calculate the deaths at a rate of roughly 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, which is higher than the adjusted-civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War, officials said at a Pentagon news conference.

"We need to move quickly to do everything we can to reverse this disturbing ... number," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said.

Officials have said that troops are under unprecedented stress because of repeated and long tours of duty due to the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The stress has placed further burdens on an overwhelmed military health-care system also trying to tend to huge numbers of troops with post-traumatic stress, depression and other mental-health problems in addition to physical injuries.

Yearly increases in suicides have been recorded since 2004, when there were 64.

The statistics released Thursday cover soldiers who killed themselves while they were on active duty, including National Guard and Reserve troops who had been activated.

The previous year's rate of suicides — 18.8 per 100,000 soldiers — had also been the highest on record. But the new pace of 20.2 per 100,000 was the first time the rate surpassed the civilian number, when adjusted to reflect the Army's younger and male-heavy demographics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suicide rate for U.S. society overall was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the latest year for which the agency has figures. But the Army says the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000 when adjusted.

The new Army statistics follow a report earlier this month showing that the Marine Corps recorded more suicides last year than any year since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

That report said 41 Marines were possible or confirmed suicides in 2008, or 16.8 per 100,000 troops. The Marine rate remained unchanged from the previous year.

The numbers kept by the service branches don't include deaths after people have left the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks those numbers and says there were 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-05 after fighting in at least one of the two wars.

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