The Army is on a pace this year to shatter the record suicide rate set among soldiers in 2008, according to data released by the Army to Salon. And the numbers, obtained a day after a patient at a combat stress clinic in Iraq killed five, suggest that combat stress may be contributing to the spike in suicides.
During the first four months of 2009, 91 soldiers committed suicide, including suspected suicides still under investigation. During all of last year, 140 Army soldiers committed suicide, resulting in the highest rate on record. If Army suicides continue at the rate recorded from Jan. 1 to April 30, more than 270 soldiers will be dead by their own hands at the end of this year. The large majority of suicides are among enlisted soldiers, privates, specialists and sergeants.
The only bright spot in the new suicide data is some evidence that Army efforts to improve suicide prevention — among other things, implementing “chain teaching” among troops on suicide risk, hiring more mental health workers and releasing suicide prevention videos — seem to be taking hold. While 31 soldiers committed suicide in January, that number dropped to 28 in February, then 22 in March and then to 10 in April. (The month-by-month chart of suicides that the Army released to Salon is reproduced in its original form on Pages 2 and 3 of this story.)
Previous reporting by Salon has established the connection between combat stress and suicide. According to the new data, among the active-duty troops who have committed suicide so far in 2009, 48 committed suicide after or during a deployment, while only 16 killed themselves without having gone to war. Two of the active-duty soldiers who killed themselves did so after deploying to war four times. Among National Guard and Army Reserve troops, 11 died during or after deployments while 16 killed themselves having never deployed. The figures for the National Guard and Army Reserve include an unexplained bubble of seven suicides among never-deployed troops that occurred in February.
The Army data does not show whether those Guard troops killed themselves after receiving an alert that they would be deployed. Paul Sullivan, executive director of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, says his organization is investigating what appears to be a pattern of suicides following notices to deploy or redeploy.
Salon obtained the data from the Army one day after a soldier at Camp Liberty in Iraq allegedly stormed into a combat stress clinic and gunned down five comrades. Sgt. John Russell, a patient at the clinic, stands accused of killing an Army officer and a Navy officer working on staff at the clinic, as well as three other enlisted soldiers. Russell, 44, was on his third deployment to Iraq and had also served in Bosnia and Kosovo. He is a communications specialist from Sherman, Texas, serving with the 54th Engineering Battalion, based out of Bamberg, Germany.
Army officials confirmed for Salon Tuesday that despite some early rumors, Russell was not wounded by anyone else during the shooting spree, nor did he wound himself. Those officials would not discuss details of the events and would not comment on reports that Russell had argued with clinic staff just prior to the shooting.
The new suicide data obtained by Salon alarmed some veterans’ advocates. “There is still a suicide epidemic,” worried Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense. “The Department of Defense failed our soldiers by not conducting pre- and post-deployment medical exams — not paper screenings — as required by law.”
“This data,” he said, “should set off an alarm to initiate medical exams, stop deploying unfit soldiers, launch an anti-stigma campaign and train our soldiers on how to spot mental health conditions.”
Noting the shooting at Camp Liberty, and the rash of murders among troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, Sullivan added that, “We may be verging on a suicide-homicide epidemic.”