WASHINGTON — The Army is investigating an unexplained and stunning spike in suicides in January. The count is likely to surpass the number of combat deaths reported last month by all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the fight against terrorism.
"In January, we lost more soldiers to suicide than to al-Qaida," said Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He urged "bold and immediate action" by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
According to figures obtained by the Associated Press, there were seven confirmed suicides last month, compared with five a year earlier. An additional 17 cases from January are under investigation.
There was no detailed breakdown available for January, such as the percentage of suicides that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan or information about the dead. But just one base — Fort Campbell in Kentucky — reported that four soldiers killed themselves near the installation, where 14,000 soldiers from the two wars have returned from duty since October.
"They come back and they really need to be in a supportive environment," said Dr. Bret Logan, a commander at the base's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital.
Officials said they did not know what caused the rise in suicides and that it takes time to investigate a number of the deaths. "There is no way to know — we have not identified any particular problem," said Lt. Col. Mike Moose, a spokesman for Army personnel issues.
Yearly suicides have risen steadily since 2004 amid increasing stress on the force from long and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The service has rarely, if ever, released a month-by-month update on suicides. But officials said Thursday they wanted to re-emphasize "the urgency and seriousness necessary for preventive action at all levels" of the force.
The seven confirmed suicides and 17 other suspected suicides in January were far above the toll for most months. Self-inflicted deaths were at 12 or fewer for each of nine months in 2008, Army data showed. The highest monthly number last year was 14 in August.
Usually most suspected suicides are eventually confirmed. If that holds true, self-inflicted deaths in January would surpass the 16 combat deaths reported last month in all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations considered part of the fight against terrorism.