Military Investigates West Point Suicides

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, said
Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, said "there is no doubt in my mind" that stress has contributed to steadily increasing suicide rates. (By Muhannad Fala'ah -- Associated Press)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

Two West Point cadets have committed suicide since December and two others attempted suicide in the past two weeks, prompting the military academy's leaders to summon an Army surgeon general's suicide team to the campus today to investigate the causes.

The suicides are the first since at least 2005. The academy is passing out prevention cards, putting up posters and reviewing its procedures, and it has ordered fresh suicide-prevention training to be completed by today, said Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Some West Point students blamed the problem on the high stress of life at the academy as well as hazing and said there have been as many as five suicide attempts since November. Officials said the two cadets who died had psychological conditions.

"This is a stressful place. It's the United States Military Academy," Hilferty said, but he added that "nothing is more stressful here than it has been."

On Saturday, a freshman cadet took an overdose of medication and collapsed near the gymnasium wearing his full combat gear, according to students and officials. On Jan. 15, a junior put a belt around his neck in an effort to hang himself and later tried to jump out a window, but he was stopped in both instances, they said. Both young men survived.

On Jan. 2, cadet Gordon Fein shot and killed himself while at home in North Carolina on leave, and on Dec. 8 cadet Alfred D. Fox, a junior, took his life at a motel near campus by allowing a helium tank to empty in the room while he slept.

"He never woke up," said a cadet familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The Dec. 8 suicide was counted among the 128 confirmed cases for 2008 announced by Army officials yesterday. An additional 15 await final determination by the armed forces medical examiner.

For the Army overall, the high pace of deployments contributes to an active-duty suicide rate that has steadily risen since 2004.

"There is no doubt in my mind that stress is a factor," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said at a news conference yesterday announcing the 2008 figures as well as new prevention initiatives.

The 2008 suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000 marked a historic high for the Army, and for the first time since the Vietnam War era it surpassed the overall U.S. rate for people of similar ages and backgrounds: 19.5 per 100,000 in 2005, the latest year for which the statistic is available. It marks a jump from the Army's rate of 12.7 per 100,000 in 2005, 15.3 in 2006 and 16.8 in 2007.

"Why do the numbers keep going up? We can't tell you," Army Secretary Pete Geren said at the Pentagon news conference. But, he said, "every suicide is a crisis we take personally. This is a challenge of the highest order for us as an Army."


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