2003 Suicide Rates Elevated Among Iraqi Freedom Troops; 2004 Rates Dip
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 25, 2004 A new Army report reveals that soldiers committed suicides at elevated rates during 2003, with those deployed to Iraq and Kuwait experiencing the greatest increase.
The spike in suicides dipped significantly during the first three months of 2004. But Lt. Gen. James Peake, the Army surgeon general, said "any suicide is something we worry about and want to stop."
Recommendations in the report, some already being put into place, include beefing up the Army's suicide prevention program and making behavioral health care more accessible to soldiers in combat and other high-stress environments.
The report follows the Army's first mental health survey ever conducted in a combat zone. A team of 12 military and civilian psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and combat-stress experts surveyed 756 soldiers in Iraq between late August and early October 2003. They also surveyed behavioral health and medical-care providers, unit leaders and unit ministry staffs.
Officials said Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 7, requested that the team come to Iraq after five soldiers killed themselves in early July 2003.
Team chief Col. Virgil Patterson said one in four soldiers surveyed reported moderate or severe emotional, alcohol or family problems. More than half reported low or very low morale and almost three-quarters reported low or very low unit morale.
Patterson emphasized that the survey was conducted when conditions were at their all-time worst: at the end of a very hot summer, before much of the infrastructure that created more comfortable living conditions had been put in place and before most soldiers knew when they would redeploy to their home stations.
Officials said they did not know if improvements in environmental and living conditions and certainty about rotation rates had impacted morale, but intend to find out when the team returns to Iraq this summer to conduct a second, expanded survey.
Lt. Col. Jerry M. Swanner, head of the Army's suicide prevention program, stressed that there is no correlation between low morale and elevated suicide rates.
In 2003, 24 soldiers deployed to Kuwait and Iraq committed suicide a rate of 17.3 per 100,000. The overall Army suicide rate during the same time period was 12.8 per 100,000 soldiers. This compares to the Army's rate of 12.2 for 2003 and 11.9 from 1995 to 2002.
The suicide rate for deployed troops dropped dramatically in 2004. Swanner said no suicides were reported in January or February, and just one soldier took his own life in March. The cause of another fatality has not yet been determined.
Despite the spike, officials said these figures remain lower than the national average of 21.5 per 100,000 for males ages 20 to 34. This is the age bracket for most U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Swanner insisted that "any suicide is one too many" and that the Army is committed to further reducing the rates.
According to Col. Bruce Crow, who served on the mental health advisory team, all but two of the 24 soldiers who committed suicide in 2003 while deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom were male. All but two served in the active component and almost two-thirds were unmarried. Only one tested positive for the anti- malarial drug Lariam, which has been linked to psychotic episodes in some users.
All but one died of gunshot wounds; the other, from an overdose of over-the- counter medication.
None of the soldiers who committed suicide had a history of mental health treatment, Crow said, and what troubles officials the most is that none exhibited telltale warning sign that could have alerted their fellow soldiers to their situations.
Officials call the "battle buddy" system a hallmark of the Army's suicide prevention program. It relies on soldiers to help identify warning signs on their fellow soldiers so they can intervene. Another measure is effective mental health care.
About 15 percent of the soldiers surveyed by the team said they sought help for combat stress. But many said they didn't know how or where to seek help.
Officials said they plan to field mental health teams closer to combat units in wartime, possibly with "roving" care providers to serve soldiers in remote locations. In addition, they hope to work to overcome the stigma many soldiers associate with mental health care.
Swanner aid these measures build on an active suicide prevention program that the Army first introduced 18 years ago.
In February, the Army announced plans to speed up its suicide awareness plans, including introducing a toll-free crisis hotline, to help curb suicides among soldiers during high-stress periods.
The hotline, called Army One Source, enables soldiers to talk with a trained professional with assurance of confidentiality. The number for stateside troops is (800) 464-8107; overseas, it is (800) 464-81077.
In 2000, the Army launched its "Soldiers, Leaders and Communities Saving Lives" suicide prevention campaign. The program aimed to teach soldiers how to recognize early signs of suicidal behavior and how to respond.
About three years ago, the Army introduced a training workshop called "Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training." The purpose was to give anyone who might come in contact with a person at risk of committing suicide the tools to intervene.
"The Army is committed to taking care of its soldiers," Peake said. "We have an aggressive program and the commitment of a leadership that understands the stresses of combat."