New Soldiers' Suicide Rate Outpaces Combat Vets

Monday, 01 Dec 2008 05:03 PM

By Nat Helms

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Newly trained soldiers preparing for war are committing suicide at a greater rate than soldiers who have seen actual combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, a physician who directs the Army’s comprehensive soldier fitness program.

“Certainly the incidence of suicide is higher than it ever has been,” Cornum told Newsmax. “There is a lot of stress in the Army right now: multiple deployments, relationship failures. It is the highest rate of suicide in Army history.”

In response, the Army is considering ramping up its “mental toughening” during basic training in hopes of stemming the grim trend among America’s young warriors, Cornum said.

According to Cornum, suicides among new recruits have been increasing steadily for several years. Statistics for 2007 showed their numbers gaining on suicides by combat troops.

According to the Army Suicide Event Report, released last May, the Army recorded 115 suicides in 2007. The report shows 32 of the suicides occurred in Iraq, and four occurred in Afghanistan in 2007.

Since that report was released, the ratio has flipped. “Now, the rate of suicide among soldiers never deployed is higher than the rate of suicide in those that have been deployed,” Cornum maintains.

Fifty-two soldiers committed suicide in 2001, the year the war on terrorism began. That number climbed to 67 suicides in 2004, and 85 in 2005. In 2006, 102 soldiers died by their own hand, the Army says.

The report also found that 935 soldiers attempted suicide in 2007.

One step the Army is taking to resist the growing phenomenon is “mentally toughening” recruits during basic training, Cornum said. The program is in the developmental stage and will be implemented as soon as the trainers can be trained, she said.

Toughening soldiers’ minds in basic training is just one of a series of efforts announced the Pentagon announced in recent months to reduce the rising trend in soldier suicides. The Army and the National Institute of Mental Health have teamed up to begin a $50-million research program to examine the factors behind soldier suicides and how to prevent them, Army Secretary Pete Geren announced recently.

According to Army records, 65 percent of the suicides recorded in 2007 were related to broken relationships, and 37 percent occurred within 30 days of when the relationship ended. Fifty-three percent of soldiers who committed suicide were younger than 25, and 57 percent were married, the report showed.

To help soldiers cope in the meantime the Army is resorting to such things as “telepsychiatry,” which means providing psychiatric counseling over the telephone, and an interactive DVD to identify potential victims of suicide, Cornum said.

Telepsychiatry is available to soldiers stationed in remote locations such as Alaska, and for mobilized National Guard and Reserve troops training in the United States, Cornum said.

The DVD features “realistic video vignettes” about two soldiers contemplating suicide. Their stories change, depending on how the viewers respond to their situations. If the viewers respond inappropriately, they can replay the scene until they get it right, the Army says.

Another example is the “Battlemind” training program, which prepares soldiers for a combat environment, Cornum said, adding that troops who have taken Battlemind training report fewer psychological health problems.

Cornum also wants the Army to implement a comprehensive program that includes a mental scorecard reflecting the soldier’s mental and emotional well being.

Last year, the Army also initiated a chain-teaching program to educate all soldiers and leaders about symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and mild brain injury, Cornum said. More than 900,000 soldiers were trained.

Despite the intensified training regimens, at least 20 percent of the soldiers returning from combat have been diagnosed with mild to moderate mental problems associated with their combat experiences, Cornum acknowledged.

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