U.S. military suicides rising, even as combat eases

By Robert Burns

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 7 2012 2:35 p.m. MDT

Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general and a practicing psychiatrist, said the suicides reflect the level of tension as the U.S. eases out of Afghanistan though violence continues.

"It's a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war," he said in an interview. "We've seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison."

But Xenakis said he worries that many senior military officers do not grasp the nature of the suicide problem.

A glaring example of that became public when a senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to "act like an adult."

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division, last month retracted — but did not apologize for — a statement in his Army blog in January. He had written, "I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act." He also wrote, "''I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us." He did also counsel soldiers to seek help.

His remarks drew a public rebuke from the Army, which has the highest number of suicides and called his assertions "clearly wrong." Last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he disagrees with Pittard "in the strongest possible terms."

The military services have set up confidential telephone hotlines, placed more mental health specialists on the battlefield, added training in stress management, invested more in research on mental health risk and taken other measures.

The Marines established a counseling service dubbed "DStress line," a toll-free number that troubled Marines can call anonymously. They also can use a Marine website to chat online anonymously with a counselor.

The Marines arguably have had the most success recently in lowering their suicide numbers, which are up slightly this year but are roughly in line with levels of the past four years. The Army's numbers also are up slightly. The Air Force has seen a spike, to 32 through June 3 compared to 23 at the same point last year. The Navy is slightly above its 10-year trend line but down a bit from 2011.

As part of its prevention strategy, the Navy has published a list of "truths" about suicide.

"Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane," it says. "They might be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing."

In a report published in January the Army said the true impact of its prevention programs is unknown.

"What is known is that all Army populations ... are under increased stress after a decade of war," it said, adding that if not for prevention efforts the Army's suicide totals might have been as much as four times as high.

Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently issued a video message to all military members in which he noted that suicides "are sadly on the rise."

"From private to general, we shoulder an obligation to look and listen for signs and we stand ready to intervene and assist our follow service member or battle buddy in time of need," Battaglia said.

The suicide numbers began surging in 2006. They soared in 2009 and then leveled off before climbing again this year. The statistics include only active-duty troops, not veterans who returned to civilian life after fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor does the Pentagon's tally include non-mobilized National Guard or Reserve members.

The renewed surge in suicides has caught the attention of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Last month he sent an internal memo to the Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders in which he called suicide "one of the most complex and urgent problems" facing the Defense Department, according to a copy provided to the AP.

Panetta touched on one of the most sensitive aspects of the problem: the stigma associated seeking help for mental distress. This is particularly acute in the military.

"We must continue to fight to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues," Panetta wrote, adding that commanders "cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services."

AP broadcast correspondent Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS