WASHINGTON – An Army report on the record number of soldier suicides says the trend reflects a rise in risky behavior including drunken driving and drug abuse in a military stretched to the breaking point by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The report says the Army is failing its soldiers by missing signs of trouble, or by looking the other way as commanders try to keep to tight schedules required to meet deployment schedules.
The Army vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, said Thursday that statistics on levels of drug and alcohol abuse, car accidents and crime suggests that soldiers are taking more risks while discipline has slipped.
The Army counted 160 suicides last year, the highest total ever. The rate was above that of the civilian population for the second year in a row.
The study counted an additional 146 deaths in 2009 that it says were due to murder, drug overdoses or other causes the Army lumps together as risky behavior.
There were also 1,713 known suicide attempts last year.
The ramped-up tempo of Army life, with faster deployments and too little time at home, underlies the problem but is not its sole cause, Chiarelli said.
Most suicides occur early in a soldier's Army career, and some come before a soldier has deployed.
The report raises the possibility that part of the increase in risky behavior comes from an increase in young soldiers attracted to the wartime force precisely because it is dangerous.
"Looking across the Army, the (report) team found that there appeared to be an overall increase in high-risk behavior," the report said.
"Leader accountability had atrophied," the report said. "There were too many gaps and seams in programs and processes that allowed high-risk behavior to continue undetected and seemingly unchecked."
Among dozens of recommendations are increases in drug and mental health staffs and ways to encourage soldiers to seek help.
Chiarelli said he would like to see supervisors at all levels intervene before problems get out of hand and accurately report problems when they occur.