Suicide Within the Ranks

Having lunch with a colleague today, the talk veered toward Iraq and our country’s involvement. He mentioned that at least 17 American troops have committed suicide since April. He’d heard it on television news, so I did a Google news search. The only report as of the time of this post was published by Utusan Malaysia Online.

Since April, the military says, at least 17 Americans – 15 Army soldiers and two Marines – have taken their own lives in Iraq. The true number is almost certainly higher. At least two dozen non-combat deaths, some of them possible suicides, are under investigation according to an AP review of Army casualty reports.

No one in the military is saying for the record that the suicide rate among forces in Iraq is alarming. But Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top American military commander in Iraq, was concerned enough, according to the Army Surgeon General’s office, to have ordered a 12-person mental health assessment team to Iraq to see what more can be done to prevent suicides and to help troops better cope with anxiety and depression.

Army spokesman Martha Rudd said the assessment team returned from Iraq two weeks ago, but that it will take several weeks to come up with recommendations. Until then, she said, no one on the team will have anything to say to the press.

Whether the suicide rate among the troops should be considered high is impossible to say because there is nothing to compare it with, experts say. What would be considered a “normal” rate for an all-voluntary military force of men and women on extensive deployments to the Middle East, under constant pressure from guerrillas who use terror tactics?

The wife of one soldier who committed suicide, out of concern for him and at his request, asked his commanding officer to send her husband home for a short while for Christmas. She described that in the five years of their marriage, they had spend fewer than 18 months of it together. She’s raising three children, going to school, and working at Walmart, and her youngest daughter has never even met her father.

The best response she got was that the Army was doing everything it could to meet her request, but there was no guarantee her husband would be giving leave for the holidays. Not long after, he committed suicide via an overdose of Tylenol. (Yes, that can happen. Toxic doses of Tylenol irremediably destroy the liver.)

If the U.S. intends to keep military personnel in Iraq for the long haul — and it appears this is the case — they must increase their services to help troops deal with the effects of constant mortal tension, anxiety, and trauma of existing in a hostile environment. It’s bad enough that families endure financial hardships, such that they resort to using expired coupons to make purchasing food and household items affordable.

These soldiers and families deserve better.

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3 Comments on “Suicide Within the Ranks”

  1. Chad Says:

    I am not sure I agree with the conclusion you draw from the evidence you provide.

    Some back of the envelope figuring tells me that you’d need closer to 100 suicides to get to something approaching the national average (using 2000 numbers from the NIMH) for the half million or so folks we’ve at one time or another shipped off to Iraq.

    But my numbers are quite obviously skewed and oversimplistic.

    I guess my point is that I don’t think that saying “look at these seventeen to forty-one suicides” is itself indicative of a problem with either the quality or quantity of mental health care that the military affords it’s troops in Iraq.

    I disagree with the assertion in the article that there’s nothing to compare it with. Hell, they can compare it to peacetime and tell us if there’s a signifigant difference.

    And speaking from personal experience with warzone depression, I’m not overly certain that they could do better with a ratio of one therapist to one soldier.

    Final note — this isn’t to say that I disagree with the thrust of the post, “the military needs to do more”. I do believe that’s functionally correct.

    But I do recognize that they do make an honest effort and that this is something that is at the forefront of every commander’s mind. The biggest hurdle (as far as I know) is actually getting the servicemembers to avail themselves of the services provided by the therapists.

  2. Kathryn Says:

    I appreciate your comments, Chad. I realize that no matter how much service is offered, it’s up to the individual to avail him or herself of it. The conclusion I draw is based not in numbers but in emotion — it is always sad to hear of such incidents, to imagine someone so tormented that the only escape they conceive is through death.

  3. Chad Says:

    That’s fully understandable.

    On the one hand X number of suicides, no matter the circumstance, is X number too many. On the other hand, if they truly have had only 17-41, I consider that to be a damned good day.

    What’s really going to be the icing on the cake is what the military is doing post-deployment to mitigate depression and other mental disorders. If they are having any major lack of mental health coverage, that’s where it’s going to be.