The number of soldiers who killed themselves rose to 128 in 2008, the highest number in a single year since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the highest since Vietnam. The Army reports that 15 other deaths in 2008 are being studied, and most of those are believed to be suicides. The deaths include members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard. Now, figures obtained by the Associated Press indicate seven suicides have been confirmed for January, a count that might surpass the number of battlefield deaths reported by all military branches in all combat zones. Seventeen other deaths for January are being investigated.
Getting help for soldiers at risk of suicide should not be too difficult, but advocates for military personnel argue that not enough is being done, and some top Army officials agree. This is an unacceptable way to treat those who risk their lives to serve the nation.
Acknowledging the crisis, top Army officials and their psychiatric consultants say they are attempting to find some answers. Two recent moves are encouraging. Without giving specifics, the Army announced it plans to conduct a "stand-down," a day focused on recognizing suicidal tendencies and removing obstacles such as the fear of discharge and other kinds of harassment that prevent soldiers from getting help. Those who need immediate help will get it without penalty. Officers and enlisted personnel will be trained to spot signs of suicidal behavior, and chaplains will become directly involved for the first time.
In another move, the Army is collaborating with the National Institute of Mental Health in a five-year project to identify the causes of suicide, concentrating on the role of combat, long deployments in remote places, financial worries and family stress, especially marital problems. Some 85 percent of those who committed suicide last year were married.
While some progress is being made, many serious problems remain. The Army's bureaucracy still works too slowly, and the ingrained reluctance to work with off-base civilian agencies and therapists exacerbates problems that could be solved or significantly reduced. The "warrior culture," with its machismo and brawn, is good for the battlefield. Away from combat, it can kill.
President Obama and Congress should help convince the Army's top brass that soldiers' mental health should be a top priority.