Army Strengthens Suicide Prevention Efforts in Iraq

Twenty-three U.S. soldiers in Iraq committed suicide last year, which is a suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers. The suicide total may increase because the circumstances of some other deaths are still in doubt. The figure also does not include soldiers who killed themselves after returning to the United States.

The overall Army had a suicide rate of 12.8 per 100,000 soldiers for the entire Army in 2003. The U.S. civilian suicide rate was 10.7 per 100,000 in 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Army now requires all soldiers to take a suicide prevention class within three months of arriving in Iraq or Kuwait, Capt. Jeff Greenlinger said Thursday. Soldiers previously had to take the class within a year.

The Army’s four combat stress teams in Iraq have also begun closely monitoring suicide attempts and visiting U.S. military units that suffer deadly attacks, Greenlinger said.

“When we hear a unit has suffered any losses, say soldiers are wounded or killed in an attack, we’re trying to get Combat Stress Control services to go out to them within a few days,” he said of the 2nd Medical Brigade’s mental health team. “We don’t want to wait until it becomes a problem.”

For the first time, suicide counseling units are stationed in a combat theater, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

Kimmitt also told reporters that soldiers are being encouraged to keep an eye on one another and report signs of depression. Chaplains and commanders also watch for warning signs of suicide, he said.

“I’ve seen as commander many times that a soldier will come up to their senior noncommissioned officers and say ‘Hey sergeant, soldier X just isn’t the same. He’s drinking more than necessary and he’s gotten very quiet and I know he’s having some family problems,”‘ Kimmitt said.

Two soldiers have killed themselves in 2004, marking a decrease in the frequency of suicides, the U.S. military reported. Greenlinger said it is unclear whether prevention efforts or other factors are responsible for the drop.

Common threads in the lives of the soldiers who committed suicide include personal financial problems, failed personal relationships and legal problems.

Greenlinger said one possible reason for the drop in suicides may be that the military has been notifying soldiers when their tours of duty end, instead of leaving the date open.

“When they know how long their deployment will be, that makes it a lot easier,” he said.

It is rare for the Army to send a mental health assessment group to a war zone as it did for this study, but the move was prompted by the suicides of five soldiers in July. That turned out to be a statistical spike and the number of suicides after July leveled off at about two per month.