WASHINGTON – Soldier suicides this year are almost sure to top last year's grim totals, but a recent decline in the pace of such incidents could mean the Army is starting to make progress in stemming them, officials said Tuesday.
Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli said that as of Monday, 140 active duty soldiers were believed to have died of self-inflicted wounds so far in 2009. That's the same as were confirmed for all of 2008.
"We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year ... this is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of these numbers in any way," he said.
But Chiarelli said there has been a tapering off in recent months from large surges in suspected suicides in January and February.
"Our goal since the beginning has been to reduce the overall incidence of suicide and I do believe we are finally beginning to see progress being made," Chiarelli told a Pentagon press conference.
He attributed those hints of a turning to some unprecedented efforts the Army has made since February to educate soldiers and leaders about the issue.
Officials are still stumped about what is driving the historically high rates across the military force. When asked whether the rates reflect unprecedented high stress from long and repeated deployments to provide manpower for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chiarelli said he didn't know.
"The reality is there is no simple answer," he said. "Each suicide is as unique as the individuals themselves."
Chiarelli said that on top of the 140 suicides reported from the active duty force, there were another 71 suicides by troops in the National Guard and Reserve.
All of the numbers are preliminary in that investigations into some of the deaths are still ongoing. Of the 140 so far this year among active duty troops, 90 have been confirmed as suicides and 50 are suspected but the probes are not yet finished.
Each year, nearly all suspected suicides are eventually confirmed. For instance in 2008, there were 143 suspected and 140 were eventually confirmed.
Chiarelli said officials will continue to focus on things that are symptoms of high-risk individuals such as undiagnosed brain injuries like concussions; on Post-Traumatic Stress, and on risky behavior such as poor diet and sleep habits as well as more serious behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse.
The Army widened its suicide prevention in March in an attempt to make rapid improvements. In October, the service introduced its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which Chiarelli called "the biggest step ... taken to enhance wellness in the entire force through prevention rather than treatment."
The program aims to put the same emphasis on mental and emotion strength as the military traditionally has on physical strength. Basic training now includes anti-stress programs as part of a broader effort to help soldiers deal with the aftereffects of combat and prevent suicides.
Also last month, the Army started using a new screening questionnaire to try to determine preexisting or current mental health issues among troops as part of the enlistment process.
Despite those campaigns, another jump in suicide figures for 2009 would make it the fifth straight year that such deaths have set a record within the military. Last year's 140 record erased a high 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006.
Chiarelli said officials are concerned with increases this year at Fort Campbell, Fort Stewart and Schofield Barracks and are trying to learn why suicides rates are down at Fort Hood, Fort Bragg and Fort Drum.
At Fort Campbell in Kentucky there were 18, while at Fort Bragg, N.C., which has almost double the population, there have been six all year.
Using some bases as examples of the trend downward, Chiarelli said that of the 18 suicides reported this year at Fort Campbell, 11 of those were in the first four months of the year. At Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, there were seven all year so far — five in the first five months of the year and only two since.
The numbers kept by the service branches don't show the whole picture of war-related suicides because they don't include deaths after people have left the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks those numbers and says there were 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the wars.
The true incidence of suicide among military veterans is not known, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service. Based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VA estimates that 18 veterans a day — or 6,500 a year — take their lives, but that number includes vets from all previous wars.