War Stress Pushing Army Suicides Higher

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 16, 2007; 7:27 PM

WASHINGTON -- Repeated and ever-longer war-zone tours are putting increasing pressure on military families, the Army said Thursday, helping push soldier suicides to a record rate.

There were 99 Army suicides last year _ nearly half of them soldiers who hadn't reached their 25th birthdays, about a third of them serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, told a Pentagon press conference that the primary reason for suicide is "failed intimate relationships, failed marriages."

She said that although the military is worried about the stress caused by repeat deployments and tours of duty that have been stretched to 15 months, it has not found a direct relationship between suicides and combat or deployments.

"However, we do know that frequent deployments put a real strain on relationships, especially on marriages. So we believe that part of the increase is related to the increased stress in relationships," she said.

"Very often a young soldier gets a 'Dear John' or 'Dear Jane' e-mail and then takes his weapon and shoots himself," she said.

The report resonated on Army bases and among war supporters and critics around the nation.

"It can get pretty depressing even when you're not in harm's way," said Sgt. Carlene Bishop, a 25-year-old from Reading, Pa., who serves in the 10th Mountain Division and returned from Iraq in May. "You're away from home, you have to put your life on hold. I know soldiers whose marriages have broken up or who couldn't pay their bills."

Carol Banks, whose husband is a chaplain for a battalion preparing for another deployment from Fort Hood in Texas later this year, said soldiers are under a tremendous amount of stress _ young and suddenly faced with war on top of the regular struggles of finances and family life.

"It just piles up, one thing on top of another," said Banks. "There is help available, but I think a lot of soldiers don't want to use it."

The 2006 total _ the highest rate in 26 years of record-keeping and the largest raw figure in 15 years _ came despite Army efforts to set up new programs and strengthen old ones for providing mental health care to a force stretched by the longer-than-expected conflict in Iraq and the global counterterrorism war entering its sixth year.

The Army has sent medical teams annually to the battlefront in Iraq to survey troops, health care providers and chaplains. It has revised training programs and bolstered suicide prevention, is trying to hire more psychiatrists and other mental health professionals and is in the midst of an extensive program to teach all soldiers how to recognize mental health problems in themselves and others _ to overcome a culture that attaches a stigma to seeking help.

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