Real way to reduce suicides too painful for military
By Rick Rogers – For The North County Times | Posted: July 16, 2010 12:00 am | No Comments Posted | Print
In March 2006, I reported that mentally ill U.S. troops were routinely being returned to combat. Two months later, The Hartford Courant printed a series titled "Mentally Unfit to Fight" that fleshed out the problem and prompted legislators to demand that the Defense Department establish deployment guidelines to protect service members who were not mentally prepared from being forced to fight.
Around the same time, I attended a combat stress conference at Camp Pendleton where doctors and psychologists told of treating frontline troops who were so medicated or psychologically damaged that they could scarcely function.
One Army major told the story of a young soldier who carried a severed arm with him on patrol. He kept it under his rack until his first sergeant and commanding officer talked him out of it.
They described medics and corpsmen handing out anti-depressants and sleeping pills without any medical screening, much less supervision or follow-up. For those of you who don't know, anti-depressants often carry a black-box advisory warning that suicidal thoughts have been linked to their use.
In many cases, commanders refused to leave these troops at home base or remove them from combat duty, because doing so would only burden the remaining troops with more work and danger. Contrary to popular belief, troop commanders —- not medical personnel —- usually make the call on whether someone stays in combat.
Then, in November 2006, William Winkenwerder Jr., then assistant secretary of defense for health affairs at the Defense Department, issued a seven-page memo outlining policy for limiting psychiatric conditions and medications during deployment.
Veteran organizations praised the guidelines as an important step toward curbing suicides.
Fast-forward nearly a handful of years. What do we have?
Despite a torrent of mental health programs aimed at turning the tide of suicide, self-murder and attempted self-murder ruthlessly defy all countervailing efforts.
This is the point in the column where I'm obligated to underscore my point by reciting desensitizing statistics that blot out the fact that a face lies behind each number, and behind each of those faces are many other anguished faces of friends and families.
With 21 confirmed or suspected suicides by Marines already this year, the Corps is on pace to approach last year's record of 52. The Marine Corps suicide rate of 24 per 100,000 troops in 2009 was the highest of any branch in the military. The demographically adjusted suicide rate among civilians is 20 per 100,000, federal records show.
Marines are trying to kill themselves at a record clip. Eighty-nine Marines attempted suicide through May, most by overdose or laceration what does he mean, laceration? a laceration is a cut, which doesn't sound serious enough to kill you, according to statistics from the Marine Corps suicide prevention program.
At this rate, the Corps could surpass 200 documented suicide attempts this year, a huge jump from the 164 attempts in 2009, which was also a record.
Lord only knows the number of undocumented attempts —- or the number of "accidental deaths" that were suicides.
The Marine Corps is not alone in this mortal struggle.
At more then twice the size of the Marine Corps, the Army had a record 163 soldiers kill themselves last year, or 22 per 100,000.
The Air Force's rate of 15.5 suicides per 100,000 is that service's highest since 1995. The Navy's suicide rate has snaked up since 2005 and stood at 13.3 per 100,000 last year.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in June, it was revealed that the Defense Department has documented nearly 2,000 suicides from 2001 to 2009, including more than 140 this year. In the last decade, the suicide rate among active duty U.S. military personnel has increased from 9.1 per 100,000 in 2001 to 15.6 per 100,000 in 2009 —- a 71 percent jump.
All these figures got me wondering about Winkenwerder's memo and why it has seemingly made no difference.
I called the Marine Corps and asked how many troops either had not been deployed to combat or had been taken out of the fray because of it.
No one had the slightest idea of what I was talking about.
And yet Defense Department mental health experts throw their hands in the air at one congressional hearing after another, swearing all is being done to stop this self-inflicted plague.
Yes, everything except what might actually work: Take affected troops out of the fray.
Rick Rogers is a longtime journalist covering San Diego military affairs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.