Saturday, August 15, 2009

Army suicides nearing a grim mark

Web Posted: 08/14/2009 12:00 CDT

By Sig Christenson - Express-News
The Army had almost as many suicides and “potential” suicides in the first seven months of 2009 as it did for all last year, when 143 soldiers killed themselves, according to figures released Thursday.

Sixty-two active-duty soldiers committed suicide from January through July, the Army said, while another 17 reservists not on duty killed themselves.

The deaths of 34 active-duty soldiers and 28 reservists remain under investigation, bringing the total number of confirmed or pending suicides to 141 — just two shy of 2008, despite intensive efforts to reverse the problem.

“It's not that the Army lacks programs to confront the problem of suicide,” said Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, director of the Army's Suicide Prevention Task Force. “The long-term challenge is determining which programs are most effective for our soldiers, and ensuring Army leaders — from junior noncommissioned officers to the most senior leaders — know how to help their soldiers take advantage of these programs.”

The new numbers of potential and confirmed suicides eclipse those for this time last year. Then the Army tallied 79 confirmed active-duty and 32 reservists suicides amid the sixth year of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and increased fighting in Afghanistan, where GIs have fought since 2001. The Army has collected data on suicides since 1980.

War veterans have accounted for the majority of suicide victims, and statistics obtained by the San Antonio Express-News show a sharp rise in the number of deaths on post and in the combat zone in the past four years.

Three of the nation's busiest posts — Fort Hood, Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Bragg, N.C. — reported 183 suicides since 2003.

Fort Hood, home to the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, has had more suicides than any post in the Army — 75 through July 31.

The Army said the post has had nine suicides this year, with two occurring in the war zone. Two of the Fort Hood suicides occurred in the past few weeks.

Sgt. Matthew D. Berryhill, a 38-year-old veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, was found July 21 in his post home with a gunshot wound.

Spc. Jimmy Foxworth, 23, was found dead Aug. 5 at a Killeen apartment. Police didn't release information, but an autopsy done by the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas said Foxworth died from a gunshot wound to the head.

They are the latest victims, but a review of suicides by post in the United States and abroad, as well as an analysis of Army demographic data for 2009, suggests the problem has been growing worse.

Fort Hood, Fort Campbell and Fort Bragg had a total of 183 suicides since the invasion began. But the three posts combined for 125 suicides from 2006 to 2009.

The posts are home to divisions that have served at least three years each in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The suicide rates for all three posts over the years generally were higher than the civilian rate, 14.06 per 100,000 for ages 17 to 55, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Fort Sam Houston had two suicides last year and one this year. The post confirmed that Arizona National Guard Pfc. Janie May Askew, 43, of Scottsdale, committed suicide. She was found in her barracks April 22 after shooting herself in the head with a handgun.

An Army demographic analysis shows she was the only woman in April to kill herself out of 12 confirmed or potential active-duty suicides. Only four of the 141 victims so far this year were female.

The Pentagon has said the typical Army victim historically is a 25- to 26-year-old Anglo NCO, and that two-thirds of all suicides come from the ranks of war-zone veterans. Both trends continue this year, with 88 serving at least one combat tour. Some of the dead this year have deployed three times, and 11 were in the war zone when they killed themselves.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, has said there is no proof that multiple deployments increase the risk of GI suicides.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has told the Express-News there must be a connection. But in a July 16 media roundtable, Army Secretary Pete Geren noted that a third of those committing suicide never had gone to the war zone.

One expert at the roundtable, Dr. Robert Ursano of the Uniformed Services University, said the issue will require intensive review as the Army and National Institute of Mental Health do a five-year study.

“There's no question that repeated deployments increase stress on individuals, stress on families, and stress on the community, but it's a much more complicated picture,” he said. “There are complicated webs involved in these issues of stressors on individuals and communities and we need to tease those out so we can understand what piece each one contributes.”

News Researcher Mike Knoop contributed to this report.

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--submitted by Tracy Shue

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