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Suicides in US Army At Record Levels

  • Melinda Smith

Thomas John Sweet (TJ) had been in Iraq two months. He killed himself on Thanksgiving Day, November 27th, 2003

Thomas John Sweet (TJ) had been in Iraq two months. He killed himself on Thanksgiving Day, November 27th, 2003

Despite higher rate, US Army says campaign to get soldiers help is showing progress at some bases

The number of suicides in the U.S. Army is reaching record levels. As of November 16th, the Pentagon said 140 soldiers on active duty and 71 not on active duty took their own lives so far this year. U.S. Army personnel predict the suicide rate will almost certainly be higher than the total in 2008. The Army has been increasingly concerned about suicides and recently launched a study into possible causes.

His name was Thomas John Sweet, the second. Everyone called him "TJ."

As a child, he loved guns and toy soldiers. His dream of becoming a real soldier came true when, just out of high school, he joined the military.

His mother, Liz Sweet, had misgivings. She says TJ had been diagnosed with a heart condition, attention deficit disorder, and problems writing. "I didn't think they would take him. But the recruiter said 'oh, that's not a problem. We'll get a medical waiver for each of those things,'" she recalled.

TJ settled into army life and loved basic training. He told his mother this was where he belonged.

But when the young soldier arrived in Iraq in September 2003, he was disturbed by the conditions of war.

Liz Sweet says the family received just four letters from Iraq while he was still alive.

In the next to last letter, he asked for medication so he could stay focused.

"Before I could do anything, he had already died," Liz Sweet said. A sergeant had accused him of speaking in a disrespectful manner. "The sergeant ordered him down off the Humvee and to do push ups in the mud. The sergeant told him that it appeared to him that TJ's head was not in the 'duty of the day' and that he would be returned to the barracks," she explained.

Liz Sweet says the report later showed he was ordered to move into the barracks of enlisted personnel, a sign he was being demoted. "His platoon sergeant then dismissed him, and within five minutes there was a sound of a gunshot and there was no one around. But they found his body under the - in the stairwell - outside of the barracks," she said.

TJ had been in Iraq two months. He killed himself on Thanksgiving Day, November 27th, 2003.

Like other soldiers who die in combat zones, TJ's body arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the transfer site for burial at home.

Days later the family was told his death was a suicide.

TJ's mother believes the Army missed warning signs that her son was mentally ill.

Liz Sweet says reports issued later showed the Army neglected to follow established procedures after TJ expressed concerns about his own mental health in an Army questionnaire.

"There wasn't a screening and there wasn't an assessment. There was no notification of his first sergeant, there was no notification of the chaplain. His weapon should have been taken away from him. That didn't happen," she stated.

VOA contacted the U.S. Army for reaction to Liz Sweet's claims.

An Army spokesman said "there will never be a substitute for noncommissioned officers who know their soldiers, know when a soldier is suffering, and to act and get that soldier the help that they need."

Brigadier General Colleen McGuire is in charge of the Army's Suicide Prevention Task Force, which asked for the suicide study. She acknowledges that changes need to be made in the way soldiers are evaluated, before it is too late.

"We also found that many commanders were not sending their soldiers to get the help that they needed because maybe they needed that soldier to deploy," MdGuire said.

Or the soldier might fear rejection because he or she is seeking help for a personal problem.

The Army's Vice Chief of Staff, General Peter Chiarelli has called the suicide rate "horrible." "It is absolutely unacceptable to have individuals suffering in silence because they're afraid their peers or superiors will make fun of them, or worse, it will adversely affect their careers," Chiarelli said.

Experts say family and work conflicts can raise the risk of suicide for anyone already experiencing depression.

Psychiatrist Robert Ursano of the government's Uniform Services University is the chief investigator in the suicide study. "For family members, it'd be most important to watch for depression," he said. "Depression is perhaps the highest index for suicidal behaviors."

But when the warning signs are not addressed, families - like the Sweets - are left to wonder what they could have done to prevent it from happening.

"What did I not give him when he was growing up that would have provided him a place that he could have gone for safety - and resiliency - to have been able to say 'this amount of despair and pain that I'm in right now will pass, and I can get through this,'" Sweet said.

Liz Sweet hopes that by talking openly about TJ's suicide, she can help others find relief from their overwhelming grief.