Local News

Army looking for new ways to curb suicide rate

Posted February 6, 2009 4:54 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— Increasing numbers of suicides by soldiers have prompted the Army's top brass to draw attention to the problem in the hopes of saving lives.

Army officials have confirmed seven suicides by soldiers in January and were investigating 17 others as possible suicides, the military announced Friday.

"In January, we lost more soldiers to suicide than to al-Qaida," said Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Chris Scheuerman, a retired Special Forces master sergeant from Sanford, has testified to Congress about the circumstances surrounding the suicide of his son, Pfc. Jason Scheuerman, while serving in Iraq.

"Jason needed help," Scheuerman said. "There were many instances where if someone had just stood up and said, 'This is wrong,' my son would be alive today.'"

The Army's chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, was questioned about the issue during an appearance at Fort Bragg Friday. He said the alarming trend keeps him up at night.

"The thing that I worry most about is the long-term impact on the mental health of our troops," Casey said.

In 2008, Army records show, a record 128 soldiers committed suicide.

Seven soldiers based at Fort Bragg committed suicide. Two of them were in an overseas theater of action.

Commanders track how many soldiers attempt suicide, but the Department of the Army has not released that data.

The American Association of Suicidology estimates that for every one completed suicide nationwide, 25 people attempt suicide.

Casey said that the Army has to start putting as much emphasis on mental fitness as it does on physical fitness.

"We recognize we've got to get the forces' attention here and get the word out that there is no stigma in seeking support," Casey said. "It's human. We are not made to deal with the horrors of combat."

The rising number of suicides has some relation to repeated deployments, Casey said, but he said a third of soldiers who take their own lives have never been deployed.

The service's top trainer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said the Army will likely have to start teaching soldiers how to handle stress from the day they take their entry oath. Stress-coping skills should be part of any comprehensive fitness program, he said.

"The new idea I suppose I would offer is getting at it right from the beginning of the career," said Dempsey, who is the new commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. "Because once the stress hits, then you are really into last-minute intervention."

The new training could also include elemental things, such as learning to balance a checkbook so a soldier with a young family doesn't fall into debt and open the way to further stress.

"What we are trying to do is identify skills we can give our soldiers, whether they are intellectual skills, physical skills, spiritual skills ... so that when the stress hits, you are armed to deal with it," Dempsey said.