Army says deployments not linked to suicides

One general tells reporters that soldiers develop "a certain resiliency" after being deployed multiple times.

Published March 5, 2009 10:40PM (EST)

The Army released frightening new suicide statistics Thursday, but suggested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have little to do with this alarming trend.

In fact, the vice chief of staff of the Army said that after reviewing suicide statistics for 2008, multiple combat deployments actually make soldiers less likely to commit suicide.

"The rational person might think the more deployments, the more likely you are to commit suicide, but we saw exactly the opposite," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli. "A certain resiliency seems to grow in an individual who has multiple deployments."

Chiarelli and other Army officials released the February statistics on a conference call with online journalists Thursday. Last month, the number of Army suicides nearly equaled that of soldiers killed in combat. Among active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve soldiers, there were 18 unconfirmed suicides and 20 combat-related deaths in February.

"This is not business as usual," Chiarelli said.

While that may be the case, Army suicides are becoming more and more frequent. In January, 24 soldiers killed themselves, more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. At least 138 soldiers took their own lives in 2008, up from 115 in 2007.

Last month, Salon's Mark Benjamin investigated preventable suicides and deaths at Fort Carson, a U.S. Army post in Colorado in his series "Coming Home."

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army's top psychiatrist, was also on the conference call. Ritchie explained that legal, occupational, spousal and substance-abuse problems are often involved in these suicides, but that they aren't sure what's causing the problems. "Sometimes it's hard to identify what was the actual precipitant," she said.

Throughout the conference call, no one suggested that the country's two wars might have something to do with the rise in suicides.

Further, according to the Army they have devoted tremendous resources to fight the growing suicide rates. Chiarelli listed program after program created to prevent soldiers from taking their own lives. In particular, the general highlighted the Army's interactive video, Beyond the Front, which depicts soldiers on the brink of suicide and asks the viewer to make choices that will either result in the soldier receiving help or committing suicide.

"I wish we could show you Beyond the Front, because what you described, the Beyond the Front video, the interactive video, that is serving as the centerpiece for our current stand-down, gets at those issues," he said.

By Christopher M. Matthews

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