Army suicides set record in July

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that the Marine Corps does not release monthly suicide statistics. The Marines do not issue news re­leases about suicide statistics, as the Army does, but they do report them online. This version has been corrected.

August 12, 2011

The U.S. Army suffered a record 32 suicides in July, the most since it began releasing monthly figures in 2009.

The high number of deaths represents a setback for the Army, which has put a heavy focus on reducing suicides in recent years. The number includes 22 active-duty soldiers and 10 reservists. The previous record was 31, from June 2010.

Army officials cautioned that investigations are underway in most of the deaths to confirm the exact cause.

“Every suicide represents a tragic loss,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, said in a written statement. “While the high number of potential suicides in July is discouraging, we are confident our efforts . . . are having a positive impact.”

Over the past several years, the Army has launched a major effort to institute new training to improve soldiers’ ability to bounce back from stress, and setbacks in combat and in their personal lives. It has hired hundreds of mental health and substance abuse counselors and has launched a push to convince soldiers that seeking help for mental health problems will not have a negative impact on their careers.

The service also has tapped the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct a five-year, $50 million study and statistical analysis of suicide in the Army, an effort that includes surveys, data mining and medical testing.

Chiarelli, meanwhile, has devoted hundreds of hours to studying the suicide problem and its possible links to post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries caused by battlefield explosions.

So far, the efforts have not resulted in a significant change in the suicide rate in the Army. Over the first seven months of 2011, about 160 active-duty and reserve soldiers have committed suicide, which is about on par with the number of troops taking their own lives during the same months in 2009 and 2010.

The Marine Corps, which reports information on suicides by corps members online, also has posted annual suicide rates similar to the Army’s.

Senior Army officials had hoped that the slowing pace of combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan might reduce the overall strain on the force and help drive down the rate of soldier suicides. The extra time at home, however, does not appear to have had a significant impact on the suicide rate.

In recent years, the Army’s suicide rate has surpassed the rate for the overall population. Comparing suicide rates among soldiers is difficult because the latest national suicide statistics, which are compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are about three years old.

If the suicide rate among troops is compared to a population that is similar to the military in terms of age, race and sex, the rate in the Army and Marine Corps appears to be about the same or slightly lower than the population at large, according to the Rand Corp., a government-funded think tank.

Greg Jaffe covers the White House for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009.
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