Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Program aims to curb Marine suicides

WASHINGTON — Faced with a rise in suicides among Marines, the service is ordering training for all immediate supervisors — sergeants and corporals — to become more involved and knowledgeable about the intimate details of the lives of their young charges.

"We as Marines always try to do the hard thing," Master Sgt. James Dinwoodie says in a training video aimed at promoting sensitivity to emotional problems Marines may be suffering. "Well, sometimes you need to do the soft thing."

Through July 16, there have been 30 confirmed or suspected Marine suicides this year. There were 42 during 2008, the highest since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have also been 89 attempted suicides this year, compared with 146 attempts in all of 2008.

The rate of Marine Corps suicides in 2008 reached 19.5 per 100,000, approaching the civilian rate of 19.9.

"We are very concerned (in the Marine Corps) because we are running ahead of last year's pace," says Navy Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, a clinical psychologist and suicide-prevention program manager for the Marine Corps.

Confirmed or suspected Army suicides have reached 88 this year, which is on pace to set another annual record, Army statistics show. The Army suicide rate is 20.2 per 100,000.

In a video introducing the Marines' training program, Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, says: "Marines are known for taking care of each other. ... This is about leadership. Our corporals and sergeants are our first line of defense. I expect each of you to step up and engage your Marines."

The training program, provided to USA TODAY, weaves a dramatic film about a suicidal Marine with a video featuring interviews with relatives of Marines who committed suicide and troops, talking about how to help other troops seek counseling. The mandatory training, which includes discussions and lectures, lasts three hours for trainers, who then spend half a day teaching other non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

The video includes footage of Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Workman, who received the service's second-highest award for valor, the Navy Cross, for heroism in Iraq, discussing his post-traumatic stress disorder and his own suicide attempt in 2006.

"Guys that come back from Iraq or Afghanistan and take their lives, it's like an 8,000-mile sniper shot. And it's another victory for the enemy," he says, urging Marines to seek help.

Non-commissioned officers handle the training exclusively, as sergeants teach other sergeants and corporals, who will then conduct 20- or 30-minute sessions with individual squad or team members, Werbel says.

"NCOs can get out there and use some four-letter words, and they're going to get their (Marines) attention," Marine Corps Command Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent says.

"We're not going to give each other a big group hug," says Master Gunnery Sgt. Peter Proietto, a four-tour war veteran who is leading the training program. "But we're going to address it like Marines. We're going to say, 'What's going on there Devil Dog? If you got a problem, let's get it fixed.' "

"They're my kids and my best friends," says Sgt. Anthony Kondziella, 25, newly trained in the program. "I know this will work."


The number of Marine suicides this year is on a record pace, reaching 30 through July 16. Annual totals:

2004 34
2005 28
2006 25
2007 33
2008 42

Source: U.S. Marine Corps

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