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'No Epidemic' Number Of Soldier Suicides In Iraq

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2004 – Soldiers serving in Iraq are not committing suicide in record numbers, a senior DoD military medical officer asserted at the 2004 Tricare conference here Jan. 28.

"Are soldiers killing themselves in increased numbers due to deployment?" asked Army Col. Thomas J. Burke, program director for mental health policy for the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. The answer, he said, is "No."

Today, all of the services "are taking a much more integrated approach toward suicide prevention and mental health care support" for service members, Burke said. This includes before and during deployments, he added, and after-deployment evaluation and care, if necessary.

Although 19 confirmed soldier suicides have occurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Burke said the Army's suicide rate "is well within the range of variation" when compared to the suicide rates for the Army over the last decade.

In fact, overall military suicide rates have remained stable for over a decade, Burke pointed out. Press reports alleging that the numbers of military suicides occurring during the war against terrorism are outside the expected range based on historic norms are false, he said.

The Marine Corps and the Navy have experienced two suicides each during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Burke said, noting that the Air Force has had no suicides. The colonel attributed the higher total number of Army suicides in Iraq to the its greater footprint in that theater of operations, compared to the other services. However, he added, the Army's overall suicide rate per 100,000 is within the range the service has experienced over the last 10 or more years.

All of the services, the colonel said, have field-operated suicide prevention programs. Suicide, he emphasized, "Is the worst mental health outcome."

He described the symptoms of depression -- trouble sleeping, lack of energy, hopelessness, thoughts of suicide -- and added that service members who experience symptoms of depression that haven't abated in two weeks or so should seek medical help.

Besides depression, he said, suicide risk factors for military members, which have remained constant over the years, include alcohol or drug abuse; relationship, financial or legal problems; and easy access to firearms.

Co-workers, family members and military leaders - including chaplains -- all can help troubled service members obtain the help they need before a life-threatening incident occurs, Burke said. Commanders and other leaders, he continued, should impress upon troops that no stigma is attached to seeking assistance for depression or for personal problems that prey upon the mind. Burke referred to a Marine Corps statistic which showed that 75 percent of Marines who had committed suicide had not seen a mental health care provider within the previous year.

Military suicide prevention programs, he maintained, are leadership programs, not health care programs. It's especially important, the colonel emphasized, to educate people that treatment is available.

The good news, Burke said, is that "there is no epidemic of suicides in Iraq." The bad news is military suicide rates "are not zero, but we never stop trying to bring them down," he concluded.


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Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs

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