Friday, January 29, 2010

Army's suicide 'crisis' leads to action

WASHINGTON — Alarmed by the suicides of eight soldiers in the year's first eight days, the Army's No. 2 general told commanders to have face-to-face contact with GIs to remind them "each one is valued by our Army," according to the Jan. 8 memorandum provided to USA TODAY.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, reinforced that message last week, telling leaders in a videoconference they must pay extra attention to soldiers who are moving from one installation to another and may need more help, says Col. Chris Philbrick, head of the Army's suicide task force.

Although Army officials say the suicide rate has dropped since then, Chiarelli's message illustrates the continuing challenge the service faces despite an anti-suicide campaign that started last year.

The military faces a suicide "crisis," said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a conference in Washington this month.

The 160 confirmed and suspected Army suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2009 was a record. Winter months were the worst, records show. Twenty-nine soldiers in all parts of the Army killed themselves in January 2009, nearly twice the 15 killed in combat that month.. In February, 27 more committed suicide. The Marine Corps suffered a record 52 suicides last year.

Army officers and supervisors must "troop the line, walk through the motor pool, stop by the barracks, eat a meal in the dining facility and visit the guard post at midnight. … It is important for all soldiers to know and understand their self-worth," Chiarelli wrote.

The rate of suicides has declined since the memo, Philbrick says, and "we are well lower (than January 2009)." He did not provide specific numbers.

The Army's suicide rate has nearly doubled since 2005 to 23 per 100,000, according to data released this month. That's higher than the civilian rate of about 20 per 100,000.

Suicides may be linked to lengthy separations caused by the current wars and the fractured relationships that can occur as a result, said Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, in an interview last week. The broken relationship may even be in terms of how a soldier sees his or her connection with the Army, he says.

"We've seen soldiers who have received sometimes minor punishment … go out and kill themselves," Schoomaker says.

Chiarelli appointed a task force last March to learn why more soldiers were killing themselves, and the Army increased suicide-prevention programs. The Marine Corps last year ordered that all sergeants and corporals learn how to talk to their Marines about personal problems.

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