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Military Investigates West Point Suicides
Deaths Come as Overall Army Rate Jumps

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."

In a prevention effort, the service will conduct a "stand-down" from Feb. 15 to March 15 to identify soldiers at risk for suicide, following an extensive education program on suicide prevention that will last until June, Chiarelli said.

The Army also announced a $50 million, multiyear study on suicidal behavior among soldiers to be conducted with the National Institute of Mental Health -- the largest single suicide study undertaken by NIMH, according to Phillip S. Wang, the institutes' director of research.

The Army has also hired 250 new psychotherapists, psychologists and social workers and 40 marriage therapists, because relationship problems within the family or military are the leading factor in suicides, followed by financial and legal problems.

About 30 percent of the soldiers who committed suicide were deployed overseas, and 78 percent of them were on their first deployment. About 35 percent took their lives after deployment. The majority, 53 percent, did so within a year of returning. Another 35 percent of the soldiers had no deployment history, according to Army data.

The number of suicides in Afghanistan, which had ranged from none to two a year, increased to seven last year, corresponding to an increase in anxiety and exposure to combat, said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, an Army psychologist.

None of the West Point cadets who committed or attempted suicide had combat experience, but some students said they believed the intense pressures of life at the academy, as well as constant hazing by classmates, contributed to the tragedies.

For example, they said the freshman, also known as a plebe, who attempted to take his life on Saturday had been mercilessly teased by older students after he sent them an e-mail suggesting he had worked as a private security contractor, according to one of his psychology classmates.

"A lot of guys gave him a lot of crap. No one beat him up, but kids called him" cruel names, the classmate said. "That kind of mentality grows here; once someone gets ostracized, it snowballs."

The freshman cadet had taken a potentially lethal dose of sleeping medication and painkillers and dressed in his body armor and helmet. He had spoken of wanting to die as an infantry commander in combat, classmates said. Some also pointed to the lack of freedom and days off at West Point as stressors. "Starting in the fall this year, we have only been allowed to have one three-day weekend," one student said.

Perceived stigma for those who seek help is a continuing problem throughout the Army and also exists at West Point, officials and students said. "They have programs here, but they are so unfriendly, and people are afraid it will affect their careers," the student said.

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