- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

A warrior braves the hardship of the front, endures months away from home, suffers the trauma of combat, escapes bullets and explosions and then comes home to America to take his own life.

This makes no sense at all. Yet this year, 82 soldiers have committed suicide, according to the Army. At this pace, the tally for 2009 will likely eclipse last year’s total of 140 suicides, the highest annual rate since the Pentagon began recording suicide rates 28 years ago.

It is all the more distressing since multiple efforts have been made to combat this phenomenon.

In January, the Army implemented a multipronged approach to deal with the growing crisis. Efforts have been made to equip junior officers with the resources to detect and prevent suicides, especially among those who are on their first tour of duty. A recent Army study reveals that 60 percent of suicides are committed by soldiers on their first deployment for they may not have the resilience of those who have been on multiple tours. Chaplains lead suicide-prevention units on the front lines. In addition, there are a host of behavioral programs and stress reduction programs available for warriors in combat zones.

The Army has also invested heavily in educating soldiers about the danger signs. Before soldiers are deployed they see “Stand Down,” a video to help them become aware of the distress they might experience. In combat, warriors see “Shoulder to Shoulder: No Soldier Stands Alone,” a video that also trains them to look out for their colleagues who may display signs of severe depression. Furthermore, soldiers undergo annual training during which these lessons are reinforced again.

And yet, suicide rates continue to climb. The Army and the National Institute of Mental Health are conducting research to explore why this is occurring. There is currently a great deal of speculation on the causes, but Army officials do not have definite answers.

Military psychologists are contemplating numerous explanations. They believe that cold winter months in the combat zones contribute to despair. Multiple deployments have a grinding emotional impact. Another potential factor is the excessive use of anti-depressants. There is also the inability to overcome mental health stigmas in the armed forces. The combined toll of infidelity, financial woes and family issues might lead to a sense of hopelessness, driving some to take their own lives.

Also, about 300,000 returning soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. For some, death may be preferable to enduring the agony of PTSD.

Both civilians and Army officials agree that one suicide among service members is one suicide too many. Having sacrificed so much for the country, troops should never arrive at the tragic conclusion that killing themselves is the answer.

Nonetheless, the rate of Army suicides advances like a train without brakes.

• Grace Vuoto is the Editor of Base News, a citizen project of The Washington Times for Americas military community.

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