(Photo: matthewbradley / flickr)
Suicides among veterans and soldiers have reached a record high this year and are set to continue rising, Pentagon officials said.
The announcement, coming on the day that the suicide rate for 2009 reached the record number of 2008, leaves advocates worrying about the possible troop escalation President Obama is considering for Afghanistan and the measures the Army has in place to deal with the combat scars which leave no physical trace.
Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, called the news "horrible," and said during a news conference Tuesday "we are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year."
As of November 16, 2009, 140 soldiers on active duty have taken their own lives, with 71 soldiers not on active duty whose death has also been identified as a suicide. The suicide rate for 2008 was the worst in three decades, and in January 2009, 24 soldiers killed themselves - more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
However, the Army said that focusing only on the number of suicides was short-sighted. "If you were to simply consider this month's or the total number for this year, you could erroneously conclude that the Army's efforts are not working ... We believe, despite these numbers, that we are making some progress," said Chiarelli, referring to new measures the military is introducing to attempt to staunch the tide of suicides, such as the new Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program and counseling offered online using Skype technology.
"They have stuck their finger in the dike and they are hoping the storm passes," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, in a phone interview Wednesday. Sullivan did not think the changes the Army plans to implement would address the key issues in the continuing rise in suicide rates - a lack of universal mandatory physical and mental examinations for soldiers coming home from the war as well as a shortage of mental health care providers for those who do seek help.
Chiarelli admitted that the Army is short about 300 substance abuse counselors, and could also use an additional 800 behavioral health specialists.
One focus of the Army's effort is the stigma associated with seeking and receiving help. "This is a matter of life and death, and it is absolutely unacceptable to have individuals suffering in silence because they're afraid their peers or superiors will make fun of them or, worse, it will adversely affect their careers," said Chiarelli.
Sullivan, who has served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, said the fundamental way in which medical help is asked for in daily training could put some soldiers off seeking help. "Every morning, soldiers go to a group formation ... all of the soldiers line up in rows and columns," and it is here, says Sullivan, where a soldier must put in a request to see a health professional. "The sergeant asks the lieutenant who asks the captain so a soldier can be excused from work to see a health professional."
According to the Department of Defense, there are from 700,000 to 710,000 people on active duty in the Army at any one time. Veterans for Common Sense estimates that about 1.1. million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are now eligible for health care and disability benefits. Of these, 450, 000 are now patients at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics, and 405,000 have filed disability compensation claims against the Veterans Association.
The diagnoses by military physicians has also come under severe scrutiny recently. In a report published by Salon, a soldier secretly taped an Army psychologist named Douglas McNinch saying the Army was pressuring him not to diagnose soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. In the tape, McNinch says he diagnosed soldiers with anxiety disorder instead, which the soldier believes may have made him more likely to be sent back into battle than a diagnosis of PTSD would have done.
The Obama administration's push for a troop escalation, as well as the fact that an increasing number of soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan are serving their second and third tours, makes the problem of increasing soldier suicides one that neither the Army nor advocates think will go away easily
"As long as the wars continue, as long as the military fails to check every soldier and hire enough doctors, the situation will continue to get worse," said Sullivan. "This all can't be blamed on President Bush anymore. This can now be blamed on President Obama and Secretary Gates ... the military may not be able to handle another surge in Afghanistan."