The U.S. Army is investigating 24 potential suicides in January, a number six times higher than in January 2008.
Seven of the January 2009 cases already have been ruled suicides and an additional 17 are under investigation as potential suicides, the Army reported.
The jump in January suicides went public a week after the Army announced there were 128 suicides in 2008, the highest since it began keeping records in 1980. It was the fourth year in a row that the numbers rose despite efforts toward increased awareness and intervention. There were 67 suicides in 2004.
The 2008 numbers could end up higher because an additional 15 deaths are being investigated as possible suicides.
The 24 potential Army suicides in January exceeded the 16 U.S. combat deaths that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same month throughout the armed forces.
There were four combat deaths in Iraq and 12 combat deaths in Afghanistan. Including non-combat deaths, the total number of deaths in Iraq last month was 14, the total number in Afghanistan was 15.
The numbers prompted enough concern among the Army's senior leadership that Army Secretary Pete Geren made the unusual decision of briefing Congress on the increase and ordering the data's public release.
The release of last year's numbers prompted the service to order a "stand down" for a window of 30 days beginning Feb. 15, when soldiers will be trained to help identify behaviors that could lead to suicidal behavior and help them intervene.
The stand down will be followed for three additional months by a "chain-teaching program" focused on suicide prevention.
It is the Army's biggest initiative ever to battle the rising number of suicides.
Geren told reporters last week that the rise in suicides remains puzzling.
"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," he said.
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, however, is convinced that combat stress is a factor in the equation.
"There's no doubt in my mind that stress is a factor in this trend we're seeing," he said.
Army officials added that the most common factors for soldier suicides appear to involve personal relationships, legal or financial issues and problems on the job.
Geren said the Army's rising numbers are symptomatic of an increase in suicides among the civilian population.
"It is not just an Army problem, it's a national problem," he said. "We're committed to doing everything we can to address it better, to put programs in place."
Last year's Army suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers was also the first time since the Vietnam War that the rate was higher than the adjusted civilian rate.
The overall U.S. suicide rate in 2005, the latest year for which data is available, was 11 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the Army said the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000 when adjusted to the age of the Army's mostly youthful population.
The number of Army suicides last year was spread fairly evenly among the ranks of those serving at home and abroad. Thirty-seven soldiers committed suicide while deployed overseas -- mostly to Iraq and Afghanistan, 50 of the suicides occurred after their return and 44 were by soldiers who had never deployed. Fifty-three percent of the suicides among those back from overseas deployments occurred more than a year after their return.
Chiarelli said, "Those statistics have to be looked at, and more questions have to be asked."
The total number of suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 now stands at 171. The overwhelming majority of the suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan last year, or 78 percent, were among first-time deployers.
In January, the Marine Corps also released data about suicides within its ranks that indicated last year had the most suicides since the start of the war in Iraq.
The numbers listed 41 Marines as possible or confirmed suicides in 2008, or a suicide rate of 16.8 per 100,000 troops. The Marine rate remained unchanged because the corps is increasing in size.
The Army also increased in size by 50,000 more troops over the same period.