Suicide and Soldiers

February 18th, 2009

The Army says it’s at a loss to explain the latest twist in US war casualty figures — which show that more soldiers killed themselves than died in combat operations.

“In January, 24 U.S. soldiers are believed to have committed suicide — seven confirmed cases and 17 more awaiting confirmation. By comparison, last January there were only five suicides in the Army,” NPR reported recently. “Last month’s total is not just the highest monthly total since the Army started counting in 1980; it is more deaths than were sustained in combat last month by all branches of the armed forces combined.”

Addressing this issue, “Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, says that the Army is actively looking into the deaths and is trying to figure out why the suicides are happening. ‘If we knew why, in every single instance we would, in fact, be able to stop this problem,'” Chiarelli tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “‘We’ve got to try to find out why the numbers continue to go up.'”

For a start, the generals ought to study the Rand Corporation’s report to the Pentagon last year, “Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery,” which found that “Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression. … Since October 2001, about 1.6 million U.S. troops have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many exposed to prolonged periods of combat-related stress or traumatic events. Early evidence suggests that the psychological toll of the deployments may be disproportionately high compared with physical injuries.”

“If PTSD and depression go untreated or are under-treated, there is a cascading set of consequences,” one of the Rand researchers wrote. “Drug use, suicide, marital problems and unemployment are some of the consequences.”

The generals ought to also study the Portland (OR) Tribune’s investigation last August titled “‘Suicide epidemic’ hits veterans,” which found that one-third of recent suicides in Oregon was a military veteran.

In 2005, the last year for which complete Oregon data has been compiled, 19 Oregon soldiers died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. That same year, 153 Oregon veterans of all ages, serving in various wars, committed suicide. …

‘There is clearly a suicide epidemic,’ says Paul Sullivan, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Veterans For Common Sense, which brought the lawsuit. Sullivan says the VA’s own data on calls made to its suicide hot line might be the best indicator of the depth of the problem. According to the VA, in July there were 250 calls a day to the suicide hot line. And veterans have made more than 22,000 calls since the hot line started in July 2007. …

The rate of suicide among Oregon men who are veterans is more than double that of Oregon men in general — 46 suicides out of every 100,000 compared to 22 out of 100,000 — according to the Oregon Department of Human Services Center for Health Statistics. …

Nationally, reports of high suicide rates among veterans began to gain attention in April, when a series of e-mails from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs officials came to light during a class-action lawsuit brought by a veterans group in San Francisco. The e-mails say that 12,000 veterans under VA treatment attempt suicide each year, and that more than 6,000 veterans succeed in killing themselves each year. There are about 25 million veterans.

The Portland Tribune found evidence of increasing numbers of suicide among Vietnam veterans, as well as National Guard, Reserves and Marines who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Linda Rotering, a social worker who counsels veterans at the Portland Vet Center on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, says she is seeing an increase in the number of Vietnam veterans coming in to see her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Rotering and others say many Vietnam veterans may have been able to keep the symptoms of their stress disorder at bay while they busied themselves with jobs and families after the war. Now, she says, many are retiring, with adult children, and may be more susceptible to the images from the war in Iraq.

‘There’s nothing to block out the memories,’ Rotering says. ‘I hear over and over again, if I have a 19-year-old sitting in my office or a 60-year-old from Vietnam, the exact same things are coming out of their mouths.’

During the Vietnam war, the VA and the Pentagon pretended there was no such problem for veterans. Yet as early as 1963, nearly 10 percent of Army deaths in Vietnam were suicides or otherwise killed themselves — “accidental self-destruction,” “misadventure” — according to casualty reports. Only after massive evidence of veterans experiencing serious readjustment problems was presented by Vietnam vet and other organizations during the 1970s was post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) given a name and a treatment plan. Under prodding from Congress, the VA in 1979 created storefront Vets Centers that provided counseling and therapy services for PTSD.

With the US fighting two hellacious wars in Asia, the VA is overwhelmed by a tsunami of vets seeking help and the military is scrambling to stop a suicide epidemic among the troops. “It’s going to take system-level changes — not a series of small band-aids — to improve treatments for these illnesses,” a Rand researcher said.

For more information:

PTSD Combat: Winning the War Within

One In Five Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Suffer from PTSD or Major Depression, RAND Corporation

“Suicide epidemic” hits veterans, Portland Tribune

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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3 Responses to “Suicide and Soldiers”

  1. Tom |

    Depressing stuff. Sounds like the Army and the VA are taking it seriously, anyway. General Shinseki becoming Secretary of Veterans Affairs is another good sign that they’ll do as much as possible. He’s a good guy.

  2. doris |

    I guess we really are not meant to kill others, even in war. It seems to seriously affect some people, and being in wars not popular with their country might have a lot to do with it, too. This war expects so much more from soldiers, with such long tours of duty, their family has moved on. It is heartbreaking, time to get out.

  3. Kevin |

    Frontline has a special on this general subject. It’s running right now on my local PBS station, but it’s viewable from their website in it’s entirety.

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