AP Photo/Jonathan Fred
In a 2007 photo, Chris Scheuerman and his former wife, Anne, reminisce about their son Jason,
who committed suicide while serving in Iraq. 

US Army Probes Skyrocketing Suicide Rate Among Soldiers

June 17, 2009 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Studies reveal the highest suicide rate in nearly 30 years among those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Back Home, Soldiers Still at Risk

The Sacramento Bee reported that according to the Army, the suicide rate among soldiers is higher now than it has been in almost 30 years, and is higher than the civilian rate of suicide “for the first time since the Vietnam War.” At least 128 soldiers took their own lives in 2008, but the number is likely to rise even higher this year: 91 soldiers have committed suicide through April.

The statistics don’t reflect the true numbers, however. Army Spc. Trevor Hogue took his own life after being discharged, so his death won’t be counted with those statistics. According to The Sacramento Bee, those closest to Hogue contend that “he was a casualty of war as much as any soldier on active duty.”
“You think that they are safe when they get back home,” Hogue’s mother, Donna, told The Sacramento Bee. “They’re not. The reality of the things that they experienced continues to haunt them.”

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Background: Suicides force Army to change tactics

In May 2008, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that “the military had made mistakes” in its mental health care treatment of returning soldiers, reported Reuters. At the time, he announced that returning troops would be encouraged “to seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder” and that doing so would not affect their military careers.

Last month, U.S. Army officials appeared to be focusing even more on soldiers’ mental health. The Washington Post reported that a group of generals, including Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, have been conducting monthly meetings with commanders from around the world, and looking for “patterns and identifying new policies to deal with the trend” of soldier suicides.

"We can't just be players in a game of Clue here," Chiarelli told the commanders. "We have to find a formalized way to get these lessons out."

Discussion has touched on the latest high-energy drinks soldiers are consuming in the field, and how such beverages can interact unpredictably with caffeine and alcohol. Soldiers who work solitary shifts, and those on medications that contribute to sleep disorders, are also considered at higher risk for suicide.

Opinion & Analysis: Recklessness on behalf of Defense Department

According to an editorial on the Inside Bay Area Web site, “The U.S. Defense Department has been reckless and irresponsible in its treatment of U.S. combat troops who have mental health issues.” Furthermore, the editorial contends, officials in the department have “been slow to follow a congressional order” that aimed to provide better mental health services for soldiers.

“If Defense drags its feet, Congress should drag Defense officials up to Capitol Hill, reaffirm the orders and set a firm deadline,” wrote the author. The editorial also suggested that President Obama could “send the message home.”

Related Topic: Public service campaign

Last July, the Department of Veterans Affairs initiated a three-month suicide prevention campaign in Washington, D.C., underscoring the mental health struggles faced by vets.

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