More Suicide Despite Efforts — (The Hartford Courant)

 

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The Hartford Courant

By LISA CHEDEKEL And MATTHEW KAUFFMAN | Courant Staff Writers

February 1, 2008

30 Soldiers In Iraq In ’07 Is Record

At least 30 U.S. soldiers killed themselves in Iraq in 2007 ­ the highest number since the war began ­ despite the Army’s myriad efforts to improve its suicide prevention and mental health programs.

An analysis of Pentagon data shows that 30 soldiers died of self-inflicted injuries, with another six cases pending a final determination of cause. The 2007 war-zone tally exceeds the 27 confirmed suicides in Iraq in 2006, which was a record high since the war began.

The numbers indicate that suicide was a leading cause of non-combat deaths in Iraq last year, accounting for more than one in four of all non-hostile deaths. The 30 cases represent about one-third of all confirmed suicides last year among active-duty soldiers stationed abroad and stateside.

Army officials noted that more troops were stationed in Iraq in 2007 than in prior years, so the suicide rate among deployed soldiers may have remained steady, even as the number of suicide cases climbed. Regardless, officials said Thursday they were concerned enough about the numbers to re-evaluate their suicide-prevention efforts.

“We have been focused on and very concerned about the increasing numbers of suicides,” said Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army’s top psychiatrist. “We have been perturbed by the rise, despite all of our efforts.”

The increase in suicides in the war zone was one factor in an overall increase in suicides among active-duty soldiers last year.

The Army released figures Thursday showing 89 confirmed suicides in 2007, both stateside and abroad, with another 32 deaths pending a final determination of cause. Those numbers could push the Army’s overall suicide rate to its highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980. In 2006, the Army rate reached a record high of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 active-duty soldiers.

The Army has made a number of changes to its suicide-prevention and mental-health programs in the last several years, some of them prompted by The Courant’s series in 2006 that found the military was failing to adequately screen and treat troops with psychological problems.

New policies adopted since then call for closer monitoring of troops on psychiatric medications and limits on keeping troops with mental-health problems in combat zones.

But family members of some soldiers who committed suicide in Iraq say the military needs to do more to safeguard mental health, as troops serve unprecedented third and fourth tours in combat.

Katie O’Brien of Pahrump, Nev., says the Army let down her 19-year-old grandson, Travis Virgadamo, in the months before his suicide last August in Iraq.

Virgadamo, of Las Vegas, had joined the Army at 17 and displayed anger-management problems soon after starting boot camp, O’Brien said. Later, while stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, he was prescribed antidepressants and began seeing a psychiatrist.

“[F]or those of you that dont know i have a slight problem dealing with stress and it has affected my military career,” Virgadamo wrote on his MySpace page in December 2006, while at Fort Stewart. “Well the army has said that they were going to take some action but thats all they said, so the last few nights i havent been able to sleep trying to figure out what they are gonna do. anyways im just stressed right now.”

Five months later, Virgadamo was deployed to Iraq, where he continued to take Prozac, and at one time was placed on a suicide watch, O’Brien said. In July 2007, he was sent home on a 15-day leave and had considered going AWOL. He went back to the war, where he was put on a new antidepressant.

“The investigation people told me that they had sent him to a stress-management class and he had graduated from that class that day, on the 30th of August,” O’Brien said. “That day, when he graduated from that class, they gave him his gun back.”

He shot himself that night.

O’Brien said the Army needs to do more to monitor and protect troubled soldiers.

“There’s too many young men and women killing themselves because they cannot handle it,” she said. “And I do blame the military. I blame the chain of command somewhere… They are letting these young people down.”

Ritchie said the Army already has expanded its suicide-prevention training and mental-health assessments, and will be making more changes. The Army is emphasizing a “battle buddy” program that teams up soldiers to look out for one another, and is looking at assigning more chaplains to deployed units, she said.

She said Army officials also are looking at whether to increase the pool of about 200 behavioral-health providers deployed to Iraq.

While Ritchie said the most common trigger for suicide is relationship troubles, she acknowledged that the strains of repeat deployments are a factor in suicides and suicide attempts. The number of reported suicide attempts and self-inflicted injuries among all active-duty soldiers has ballooned since the war in Iraq began ­ from 375 in 2002, to about 2,100 last year.

“We are under strain as an Army,” Ritchie said. “I think that it is a marker of stress on the force.”

Ritchie, who visited Iraq in October to assess suicide-prevention efforts, said there is no clear pattern among suicides in the war zone, but they occur with slightly more frequency between six and 10 months into a deployment.

She said the Army is looking at whether to “target suicide intervention,” based on how long a soldier has been deployed.

Contact Lisa Chedekel at lchedekel@courant.com.