The U.S. Army reported Thursday that the suicide rate among its soldiers is up this year, compared to last year, and could reach the highest total since at least 2003. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
The Army says this year's suicide total among soldiers could reach 130, out of a force of about a million and a half. That would be an increase of more than 10 percent over last year and it would bring the Army above the overall suicide rate for the United States, as adjusted to reflect the Army's demographics.
"Certainly, it is concerning that we have a very high suicide rate - higher than last year and higher than the past several years," said General Rhonda Cornum.
Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum heads the Army's suicide prevention effort. She says the Army's suicide total would likely be even higher if not for a variety of programs started in recent years to increase mental health and chaplaincy services for the troops, and to encourage soldiers to seek mental health care when they need it.
But General Cornum notes that most U.S. Army suicides did not happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, about 31 percent of Army suicides occurred in the war zones. So far this year, the figure is about 22 percent. Another seven to eight percent of the suicides come within four months after soldiers return home from combat assignments.
General Cornum, who is a physician, says the reasons people commit suicide are fairly consistent, regardless of their combat experience.
"Failed relationships, legal and financial difficulties, and occupational and operational issues and stresses are the main stresses and risk factors that we believe lead to suicide, or at least are associated with suicide," she said.
Still, combat often exacerbates such problems, and the general praised field commanders for adopting innovative approaches to reduce the stress on troops. Among them is Colonel Scott McBride, who spoke via satellite from Iraq on Thursday about some of his efforts.
"Really, the key there is our junior leaders communicating and then listening to our junior soldiers," said Colonel McBride. "And we've also been very liberal about sending soldiers home who have family problems. That happens over a period of time if you're on your third deployment. And the way we see it is that's an investment in our soldiers."
Colonel McBride says such personalized efforts are more effective than the formal suicide prevention training programs the Army provides.
But those programs are continuing and General Cornum notes that this month, the Army is working to further increase awareness and prevention of suicide.
"Every effort must be made to understand and inform Army personnel of risk factors involved, and to train soldiers, families and our civilians to actively intervene," said General Cornum. "And I think that's the biggest difference this year from previous years."
General Cornum says one key element is a program designed to teach individual soldiers to recognize and act on indications that a friend may be contemplating suicide. Soldiers are being told to talk to the person, take away any weapon in the area and to personally escort the soldier to a professional who can help.