The disturbing number of suicides in the military now has a face

It's Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, a high-spirited Marine who shot and killed himself in an Afghanistan fox hole after hours of beatings, repeated push-ups in full body armor and mouthfuls of sand. Three Marines allegedly punished the 21-year-old after he had been caught sleeping on duty.

A House Armed Services hearing Friday on the status of suicide prevention programs in the military gave leaders from the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps a chance to answer lawmakers' questions about identifying service members at risk and other steps they are taking to stop suicides. The military witnesses highlighted their efforts and described how services members often "dance with some dragons," which was how Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead Jr., put it.

Toward the end of the hour-long session, California Rep. Judy Chu talked about the life and death of Lew.

He was her nephew.

"I want to tell you about something that happened in April of this year," she quietly told the military witnesses, her colleagues on the committee and various spectators. She described how Lew was caught sleeping — it had happened before during the previous 11 days in Helmand Province — and how the sergeant had called for "peers to correct peers." The punishment began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3:20 a.m., with Lew punched and kicked and forced to dig a hole.

"At 3:43 a.m. Lance Corporal Lew climbed into the foxhole that he just dug and shot himself and committed suicide," Chu said. "Lance Corporal Lew was my nephew. He was 21 years old and he was looking forward to returning home after three months. He was a very popular and outgoing young man known for joking and smiling and break dancing."

The two-term Democratic congresswoman said her nephew's case wasn't the only one, and described others. She questioned the military witnesses on whether hazing is prohibited and if so, what was being done to enforce the regulation.

A bit stunned, the military leaders expressed sorrow for her loss. They insisted that hazing is banned, incidents are investigated and offenders are dealt with swiftly.

"We don't condone hazing in the United States Marine Corps," Milstead said.

Three Marines face a hearing in Hawaii, where Lew's unit was based, to determine whether they should be court martialed. Lance Cpl. Jacob D. Jacoby, Lance Cpl. Carlos Orozco III and their squad leader, Sgt. Benjamin E. Johns have been charged with "wrongfully humiliating and demeaning" Lew. The Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, was being held Thursday and Friday.

Shortly after Lew's death in April, Chu spoke on the House floor about her nephew, a Santa Clara High School graduate who joined the Marines in August 2009 and expected to return to the states in July 2011. She said he had been fighting for freedom in Afghanistan.

"Freedom does not come without a price," she reminded members of the House.

The rate of suicides in the military has increased in the last decade, with service members facing multiple deployments in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, testified that in the last three years, the suicide rate in the military has crept closer to the civilian rate.

The military witnesses spelled out several steps by the department to get to zero suicides — from sharing information with Veterans Affairs and working with the National Institutes of Health to focusing on peer-to-peer mentoring.

"The department has invested tremendous resources to better understand how to identify those at risk of suicide, treat the at-risk individuals, and prevent suicide. We continue to seek the best minds from both within our ranks, from academia, other federal health partners, and the private sector to further our understanding of this complex set of issues," Woodson told the military personnel subcommittee.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., a member of the subcommittee, offered the sobering numbers for 2010 — 37 Marines committed suicide, 39 sailors, 56 members of the Air Force and 300 in the Army.

In January 2011, the Army said the number of suicides among active duty soldiers had dropped but there had been a sharp increase in the number among National Guard and Reserve troops.

The military has said it is committed to a community with members who are resilient and have a sense of belonging. The services insist that seeking help for stress or depression isn't a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and courage.