Army Works to Stem Tide of Suicides Among Troops

Commanders cannot explain the increase in soldier suicides.

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The Army is at a loss. The Pentagon has been trying for some time to come up with an explanation for the disheartening increase in suicides among soldiers, which this year stands at 140 among active-duty troops, the same number that took their lives in all of 2008. "Obviously, we would prefer not to have another suicide this year," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, told reporters this week. "But we know that will not be the case." It is, he added, a "horrible" situation.

Chiarelli, who was the No. 2 commander in Iraq at one of the most wrenching times of the war—just before surge forces were sent in—calls the specter of soldiers ending their own lives "without a doubt the toughest that I have had to tackle in 37-plus years in the Army." Pentagon psychologists and statisticians have burrowed down into numbers and circumstances and come up with very little that will help them foresee which soldiers are more likely to die by their own hand. "Over the past eight months, every suicide has been briefed to me," said Chiarelli. But, he said, the ability to predict human behavior remains elusive. Stress from multiple deployments might be one logical explanation, but one third of those who committed suicide this year never went to war.

In many cases, the Army has tried to respond intuitively. It stands to reason that troops who drink too much might be at greater risk of harming themselves, and so the Pentagon recently launched a controversial pilot program that allows soldiers to seek out substance abuse treatment without the knowledge of their superior officers. "Leaders didn't particularly care for it," Chiarelli says. But the Army forged ahead with the program at three bases, keeping counseling services open late and on weekends so soldiers could stop by discreetly. But they have run into another problem: There simply are not enough substance abuse counselors. "I'm having one heck of a time getting the numbers I need," said Chiarelli, citing appointment waiting lists of three months for some soldiers.

There is, in fact, a shortage of mental-health counselors throughout the military. The Army has hired almost 900 therapists in the past two years, but that still leaves a severe shortage; it needs "somewhere in the vicinity of, I would argue, 800" more, Chiarelli said.

With the goal of quickly bringing on new counseling hires, the Pentagon has grappled with whether quality might suffer. It is a concern that seemed even more relevant this week, on the heels of news that the alleged shooter in this month's Fort Hood rampage, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, received poor performance reviews and proved to be, on multiple occasions, an incompetent therapist. Did these warning signs go unnoticed—or ignored—because of a desperate shortage of mental-health professionals in the military? And if the Pentagon had paid more attention, would it have discovered that one of its own might have been homicidal as well? "Well," said Chiarelli, "I think we always have to be concerned about that."

Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, the director of the Army's efforts to instill resiliency in its soldiers, weighed in. "I was at Fort Bragg when there was the person who decided to start sniping at people who were doing PT [physical training], and I don't think that studying that one guy would've allowed us to predict this second guy," she said. "I think tragedies sometimes happen."

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