By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — A record number of soldiers — 109 — have killed themselves this year, according to Army statistics showing confirmed or suspected suicides.
The deaths occur as soldiers serve longer combat deployments and the Army spends $100 million on support programs.
ON DEADLINE: Vets' suicides also being scrutinized
"Soldiers, families and equipment are stretched and stressed," Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, told Congress last month.
The Army provided suicide statistics to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Her staff shared them with USA TODAY.
Those numbers show 77 confirmed suicides Army-wide this year through Nov. 27 and 32 other deaths pending final determination as suicides.
The Army updated those statistics Wednesday, confirming 85 suicides, including 27 in Iraq and four in Afghanistan.
The highest number of Army suicides recorded since 1990 was 102 in 1992 — a period when the service was 20% larger than today.
A total of 109 suicides this year would equal a rate of 18.4 per 100,000, the highest since the Army started counting in 1980. The civilian suicide rate was 11 per 100,000 in 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The military hasn't erased the stigma surrounding mental health issues, so troubled soldiers often do not seek help, Murray says.
"I want to say I'm surprised" by the suicide increase, she says. "But when we're not doing everything we can to deal with mental health, when we know the Army is under such stress, it's not a surprise. It has to be a wakeup call."
The Army has moved more aggressively in recent years to stem suicides, instituting mandatory training for every soldier about mental health and establishing a program to study its suicides.
Research released by the Army in August shows that almost 70% of suicides in 2006 were spurred by failed relationships.
The Army continues to improve its suicide-prevention programs, spokesman Paul Boyce said Wednesday. A hotline number — 800-342-9647 — is also available.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, records show that 128 soldiers have killed themselves while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
One was Spc. Travis Virgadamo, 19, of Las Vegas. His family said he was on suicide watch but was eventually taken off, and his gun was returned. "That night he killed himself," says his grandmother, Kate O'Brien, of Pahrump, Nev.
O'Brien says her grandson desperately wanted to come home.
"He would say, 'Grandma, pray for me.' " she says. "What good is somebody (to the war effort) that is under such stress?"