CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Marines stressed from repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking help like never before, and their suicide rate is the highest in the military after doubling in just the past three years. Even with more mental health professionals sent to bases to help, they have had trouble keeping up with demand.
There have been times when staff at Camp Lejeune's base hospital faced a choice of either staying with a Marine through lengthy treatment or leaving a case to be able to keep up with the deluge of new patients.
"We couldn't see people as frequently as we wanted to, and to see them as much as we wanted to would mean not getting another Marine an initial evaluation," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Webster, the hospital's head of mental health.
More than 1,100 members of the armed forces killed themselves from 2005 to 2009, and suicides have been on the rise again this year. The sharpest increases have been in the Army and Marine Corps, the services most stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mike Sloan, a California veteran who counsels troubled Marines, said commanders should be doing more to reach out to Marines in trouble and get them help. He said the military still faces a huge challenge in changing a mindset that encourages troops to be tough and handle their own problems.
"We people don't listen in the armed forces," said Sloan, who helped start a nonprofit veterans group in Oceanside, Calif., near Camp Pendleton. "I am positive combat stress and (post-traumatic stress disorder) are caused by leadership failures."
A report ordered by Congress last year and sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday said the service branches' prevention programs are inefficient. The 14-member panel of military and civilian doctors recommended changes, including creation of a high-level office to set strategy and coordinate prevention programs across branches.
Officials with the Navy, which oversees health care for the Marines, say its hospital staffs are strained. Multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are making troops more vulnerable to psychological problems, and the number of people living on bases has greatly expanded with military recruitment up because of the wars.
The Marine Corps has started deploying mental health professionals in the field, but the efforts have yet to affect the suicide rate, commanders say.