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For Pentagon, Soldier Suicides a Frustrating Problem

  • Luis Ramirez

PENTAGON -- For many U.S. veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the return home is more difficult than the time spent in combat, and suicide rates among service people are rising - exceeding those among the general U.S. population. With military personnel killing themselves at a rate of nearly one a day, the military leadership - and the soldiers’ relatives - are looking for answers.

It was not the bombs in Iraq but coming home that resulted in the death of Josh Lipstein.

The 23-year-old committed suicide last year, after returning from his second deployment in Iraq.

His father, Don Lipstein, says Josh struggled with drug abuse - and did not want to open up to military therapists for fear of ruining his reputation.

“I think as a society we train our mil [military] people to be tough, but there’s got to be a way for them to release that toughness after they come back from tour duty," said Don Lipstein.

Experts say the risk of suicide is even higher as soldiers transition to civilian life and deal with issues like post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, and financial difficulties - often alone, without the structure of military life.

Many don’t seek help for fear their careers may suffer.

But many others - like Marine Lance Corporal Michael Harris - do.

His brother Ben says Michael took his own life last February after his deployment in Afghanistan.

“Michael was at least actively reaching out and looking for help from the counseling department, but, when he let them know that he was drinking too much - and this was his own admission looking for help - that was when he was told that he now qualified as having a substance abuse issue and they could no longer help him," said Ben Harris.

The military started suicide prevention training years ago, but advocates say a rigidly-structured system of categorizing patients is failing to take responsibility for at-risk individuals who reach out.

The result: missed opportunities.

U.S. government health experts at a recent conference in Washington said 70 percent of military suicide victims have seen doctors - many of them the same day they commit suicide.

Leon Panetta says the suicide issue is perhaps the most frustrating challenge he has faced as secretary of defense.

“There are no easy answers to the problem and challenge of suicide, but that is no damned reason for not finding the answers for the problem of suicide," he said.

Don Lipstein will never get his son back, but joining an advocacy group, speaking out and raising awareness - are helping him turn tragedy into something positive.

“This is a being able to sit in front of people today and tell the story and hopefully save a life," he said.

Ben Harris hopes the military will adopt a more holistic, less bureaucratic approach.

“The more we can do to continue to educate all of our military members from the bottom rank on to the very top that invisible wounds and emotional illness are just as dangerous to our military being ready to serve, the better it’s going to be," he said.

Michael Harris' epitaph reads: "Too awesome for this world."

He should have survived coming home.