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US Army Continues to Struggle with Suicides

  • Al Pessin

Vice-chief of Staff of the Army, General Peter Chiarelli (undated photo)

The U.S. Army reported Wednesday a slight decrease in the number of active-duty soldiers who committed suicide last year, compared to the year before. But officials say the number of reserve troops who killed themselves rose, and many of them had never deployed to the high-stress war zones, further complicating the task of figuring out and addressing the problem.

No one disputes that the life of a U.S. soldier has been stressful in recent years, with many facing multiple deployments to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Aside from the danger, soldiers deal with long separations from their families, the long-term impact of injuries and trauma and a variety of other stresses.

The Vice-chief of Staff of the Army, General Peter Chiarelli, says within a few years, a young soldier can experience a lifetime’s worth of normal, civilian stress, and the Army has been working on the suicide issue for years.

“We believe these and other efforts will take us from a leveling off of active-duty suicides to a reduction of suicide attempts and other high-risk behavior," said General Chiarelli.

The Army finally saw a slight decline in the number of active-duty soldiers committing suicide last year, 156 compared to 162 the previous year. But at the same time, General Chiarelli says the number of suicides among part-time soldiers - National Guardsmen and Reservists - nearly doubled, from about 80 to more than 140.

“The reality is we are able to more effectively influence those soldiers serving on active duty and help mitigate the stressors affecting them," he said. "Conversely, it’s much more difficult to do so for individuals not serving on active duty.”

Chiarelli notes those troops are off base, away from the support and camaraderie of their units and the attention of their officers.

Officials and experts have noted that the key causes of suicide among soldiers appear to be similar to civilian causes - relationship problems, financial issues and clinical depression, among others. But officials acknowledge the stresses of army life can easily create or exacerbate such problems.

The Army is in the midst of a huge study of soldier suicides, and Chiarelli says some preliminary results are already having an impact on policy. But he says it is a very difficult issue, exemplified by the fact that one third of the soldiers who committed suicide last year had never been deployed to the war zones.

The general says the Army will continue with its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, designed to increase the “resiliency” of its troops who face the particularly acute stresses of war. But he acknowledges the situation will not likely change until the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan comes down, which is expected starting later this year. The goal is to enable soldiers to spend at least two years at home for every one year deployed, instead of the one-to-one ratio many have faced in recent years.