The U.S. Army said the number of soldiers who committed suicide last year has increased for a fourth straight year. Army officials said despite an increase in funding for programs to help soldiers, they are having a hard time fighting the stigma attached to seeking professional help.
At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, an increase from 2007 when a total of 115 suicides were recorded among active duty and those in the Army Reserve and National Guard. Officials said the number may go even higher pending the examination of 15 additional cases that could be self-inflicted.
Highest Suicide Rate Since Vietnam War
This is the first time since the Vietnam War that the rate of suicide in the Army, about 20 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, has surpassed the civilian suicide rate.
"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you. But we can tell you that across the Army, we're committed to doing everything we can to address the problem," promised Secretary of the Army Pete Geren.
Geren and other Army officials on February 5 announced a handful of prevention programs that will either be introduced or enhanced. One such initiative will be a day-long "stand-down" in which all active duty soldiers will receive suicide prevention education, with an emphasis on escorting someone who might be in trouble to seek help.
Military-Civilian Partnership to Combat Suicide
The Army is also entering into an unprecedented five-year, $50 million partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health, in an effort to better understand what causes soldiers to commit suicide.
Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatrist in the Army Surgeon General's office, said while the army is hiring and training more medical workers, more involvement is needed.
"We do need the help of the American public. Many of these suicides happen when somebody is on leave or away from their unit. As I've said before, this really has to be a national effort, where everyone is reaching out to soldiers and their families to recognize there is a difficulty," she said.
Colonel Ritchie said problems within family or marital relationships back at home were significant factors leading to suicides, but she noted that legal, financial and occupational difficulties contributed as well.
Younger Soldiers More Vulnerable
Timothy Schulz has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and knew two fellow soldiers who took their lives. He said the strain is particularly difficult on younger recruits.
"They feel more, I'd say, trapped than the older people. The older people have a little more experience and they say, "Okay, you know this is going to be over at some point." Whereas the younger guys, they just get into the army and they start to go through these experiences and they kind of get that sense of hopelessness," he explained.
He said one soldier he worked with shot himself soon after his unit arrived in Afghanistan.
"He was having difficulties with his relationships at home, and now we had almost just gotten to Afghanistan, and it's a pretty new experience. He's up at night; he's in the guard tower, and whatever else. And he had too much. It was too much for him," he said.
The Army found about 35 percent of suicides came after soldiers returned home from deployment, while another 35 percent of suicides occurred among soldiers with no history of deployment. 30 percent occurred while soldiers were in the field.
One of the key issues the Army has been trying to address is the feeling among many soldiers that seeking psychological help is a sign of weakness and could be harmful to a career.
General John Hawkins, deputy chief of staff for personnel, said the Army is committed to overcoming the stigma attached to seeking professional help.
"This is not a practice that resonates with what we are about in the United States Army, and some of the methods that we're going to use to get at this will leverage the warrior ethos - and the way we treat ourselves and our fellow soldiers throughout the Army," he said.
Officials acknowledged there is no quick fix, but said more will be done to help the troops deal with the additional stresses that have developed in an age of persistent conflict.
Julia Ritchey writes for VOA News.