Suicide Rate Reflects Toll of Army Life

With suicides at a 30-year high, Army vows to address the problem.

January 31, 2009, 9:55 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2009— -- Three months into his first deployment to Iraq, in November 2003, Army Specialist TJ Sweet was having a hard time -- working intense 18-hour shifts, battling sandstorms and bouts of anxiety.

On Thanksgiving Day, Sweet exchanged some harsh words with his commanding officer. As punishment he was told to do five push-ups and he was dropped from the promotions list.

Not long after that, his fellow soldiers heard gunshots and found Sweet's body under the stairway of the barracks. He had shot himself in the head.

The news devastated his mother, Liz Sweet. She had never wanted her son to join the military because of his health problems: a heart condition and Attention Deficit Syndrome.

She had thought the Army would turn down his application to enlist, but when she told the recruiter about her son's conditions, she said the recruiter told her they could get waivers that would still allow him to serve.

Now her son is gone and she blames the Army, in part, for failing to recognize the signs of his despair and for accepting him in the first place.

"It could have been different," she said.

TJ Sweet is just one of the hundreds of soldiers who have committed suicide since the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2008 alone, the Army reports there were at least 128 confirmed cases of suicide, more than a dozen of which are still under review. This past week, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren announced that the Army suicide rate has been steadily rising since 2004 and now is at its highest level in 30 years.

"This is a challenge of the highest order for us as an army and we are doing everything we can to address it," Geren said. "We're not going to stop until we don't have any suicides in the army."

That candor came with a commitment. The Army has ordered a so-called "stand down" -- a month-long effort to make sure every soldier has received intensive training on suicide awareness and prevention.

But Geren himself posed the most obvious question.

"Why do the numbers keep going up?" he asked. "We cannot tell you."

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the lead psychiatrist with the Army said it's impossible to narrow down the specific causes of the increased rate of suicide, but there are contributing factors, including the current missions.

"Unquestionably we have been at war a long time. We are tired," said Ritchie, who has been working in mental health in the military for more than 20 years. "It's multiple deployments, it's long deployments, it's being there on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We work really hard."

And that puts stress on soldiers and their families. They key, she said, is learning how to recognize the signs that indicate when that stress morphs into depression, despair or suicidal tendencies. She said some aspects of life as a soldier can trigger feelings of humiliation, of loss and sometimes social isolation.

Victims' advocates say that's where the real change has to happen -- in the military culture that breeds those sentiments.

"The most the military can do often is tell people to suck it up and when suck it up doesn't work and nobody's supporting you, that's what leads to suicide," said Steve Robinson, a retired Army Ranger who works with veterans grappling with emotional trauma.

Mostly, he said, no one should ever feel maligned or feel the threat of some kind of stigma for asking for help.

Liz Sweet said she isn't angry anymore. She's made her peace with her son's death and she applauds the Army's new efforts to curb the suicide rate, even though for her, those efforts are coming five years too late.

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