Army probes soldier suicides

By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

Alarmed by the number of suicides among soldiers in Iraq, the Army has asked a team of doctors to determine whether the stress of combat and long deployments is contributing to the deaths.
"The number of suicides has caused the Army to be concerned," said Lt. Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a psychiatrist at the Army's Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Ritchie is helping to investigate the suicides in Iraq. "Is there something different going on in Iraq that we really need to pay attention to?" (Related story: Soldier's suicide shocks Pa. town)

In the past seven months, at least 11 soldiers and three Marines have committed suicide in Iraq, military officials say. That is an annual rate of 17 per 100,000. The Navy also is investigating one possible suicide. And about a dozen other Army deaths are under investigation and could include suicides.

The numbers suggest the rate in Iraq is above normal. Last year, the military services reported 8 to 9 suicides per 100,000 people. The Army rate is usually higher, 10 to 13 per 100,000. That mirrors the rate for the same age group in the general population.

Army officials caution against drawing general conclusions based on small changes. But they sent a mental-health team to Iraq last month to study various issues, including suicides and treatment available for soldiers suffering from depression. Dispatched by the Army surgeon general's office, the team consists of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and the manager of the Army's suicide-prevention program. The team has surveyed 700 soldiers and held discussions in which GIs were encouraged to talk freely.

"They are ... looking at the stresses on the troops, how well the troops are coping and how well the basic principles of battlefield psychiatry are working," Ritchie said.

Most of the suicides have occurred since May 1, after major combat operations were declared ended. Experts say harsh and dangerous living conditions combined with a long deployment can worsen existing depression. And the accessibility of weapons in a war zone can quickly turn a passing thought into action. "It just takes a second to pull it out and put it to your head and pull the trigger," Ritchie said.

The Army has sent 478 soldiers home from Iraq for mental-health issues. Officials say that in previous wars, many of those cases would have been treated in the war zone. The Army doesn't have enough mental-health resources in Iraq to treat many of the cases.

The Army responded to a 26% increase in active-duty suicides from 1997 to 1999 by implementing the suicide-prevention program in 2001.