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Home > Research Articles > Military Probes Suspected Suicides

The Washington Post

Monday, July 21, 2003

The Washington Post - July 20, 2003

The U.S. military is investigating at least seven cases of suspected suicide by soldiers deployed for the war in Iraq that began in March a week before hostilities commenced and have continued in the months since major combat operations ended, defense officials said.

As yet there is no evidence indicating that the cases represent a spike in the rate of military suicides or any kind of pattern that can be linked to the battlefield environment or poor morale in Iraq, defense officials said. There were 118 suicides in the 1.2 million-member, active-duty military in 2001, which represents a rate that is at least one-third lower than that of the comparable civilian population.

But the Army and the Marines have stressed suicide prevention in the past year after increases in suicides that may have been at least partially attributable to lengthy deployments and other strains following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the ensuing war in Afghanistan.

The Army is investigating at least five suspected suicides by soldiers in Iraq, a defense official said. The Marines have confirmed one suicide and are investigating at least one suspected suicide, according to Capt. Sean Turner, a Marine Corps spokesman.

Overall, the military has not released an official count of possible suicides under investigation, and the total could be higher than seven, given a number of unexplained deaths included in the Pentagon's casualty statistics. The military has reported nine cases of accidental death that could include suicides, most of which were from "noncombat weapons discharges."

In 12 other cases, the cause of death has been officially listed as "other" and described only as "noncombat injuries."

David Orman, a psychiatrist who serves as a consultant to the Army surgeon general on suicide prevention, said that military suicides typically drop during combat, when troops "are very preoccupied with staying alive" and are removed from domestic problems and other personal pressures.

Furthermore, soldiers in combat, including those in Iraq, typically are not consuming alcohol, Orman said, which impairs judgment and contributes to an increase in the suicide rate.

But Orman said Army commanders are aware that a soldier's focus on personal problems returns once major combat ends, along with new problems, such as post-traumatic stress. Easy access to weapons and live ammunition, he added, is another risk factor.

Lt. Col. Jerry Swanner, manager of the Army's suicide prevention program, said the service revamped its suicide prevention program in 2000 and recorded its lowest suicide rate in a quarter century in 2001. But when the rate increased after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Army reemphasized suicide prevention in 2002 and has spent almost $1 million on increased training since then.

"Suicide prevention is a leadership issue," Swanner said. "It involves caring for soldiers, knowing what's going on in the lives of your soldiers, and having the compassion to act if you see something is going wrong."

After a string of murders last year at Fort Bragg, N.C., in which four service members killed their wives -- and all subsequently committed suicide -- the Army recently implemented a program, called Deployment Cycle of Support, to help soldiers readjust after returning home from lengthy combat tours. One aspect of the program is suicide prevention.

"One of the things we stress is that reaching out is not a sign of weakness," said Lt. Col. Glen Bloomstrom, a chaplain who is in charge of ministry initiatives for the Army and has extensive experience in suicide prevention training.

He said that the intense bonds soldiers form during combat operations act as a "protective factor" in suicide prevention. But postwar factors, he said, can increase the risk of suicide, including "Dear John" letters that arrive instantly via e-mail and satellite telephone.

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