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DOD task force confronts suicide

SEOUL, South Korea — They’re often young, male, in the Army, and recently had their hearts broken.

Another thing they have in common: They fit the profile of many servicemembers who kill themselves.

The military has yet to understand thoroughly why more troops are committing suicide, or whether multiple deployments contribute to them, said Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe, co-chairman of the new Defense Department suicide prevention task force conducting a study on the problem.

The 14-member task force, which includes seven civilians and seven servicemembers, began meeting about a month ago and will present its findings to the secretary of Defense next summer.

Volpe, who spoke at a recent medical conference at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, said the latest statistics the group is studying have not been cleared for release. But he said his "gut feeling" is that the stress of deployments and operations tempo are factors in an increase in military suicides. And suicides are a much greater problem in the Army than in other services.

As of Nov. 16, 140 active-duty soldiers had committed suicide this year, the same recorded as the total for all of 2008, according to the U.S. Army.

Still, Volpe said, there is little consistency in ages and experiences of victims.

"There are folks who do it at our installations," he said in an interview after the conference. "Many are people who have never deployed. Many are people who have deployed once. Many are people who have deployed twice."

Volpe said those most at risk for committing suicide are younger than 25, male, white, divorced, and didn’t complete high school. About one-third had a history of having at least one mental disorder, and 40 percent had been to a medical treatment facility in the three months before they committed suicide, although the reasons they saw a doctor weren’t known.

Many had a recent failed relationship.

"There’s a constellation of things (that contribute to suicide), and this seems to be the trigger," Volpe said.

He said 32 percent had an intimate relationship end in the 30 days before they killed themselves. He said some of their families told him their children got married too quickly because they wanted to get out of the barracks and get the military benefits given to married servicemembers.

"Many of them felt that they were jumping into relationships not only because they needed a close, loving relationship, but they needed a better quality of life," he said.

Many had few friends.

"They were loners in their units," Volpe said. "They didn’t fit in with their other buddies. They didn’t enjoy where they were."

He said the task force may recommend a campaign plan to reduce the stigma of seeking help for emotional problems after deployments. It might also seek stronger training programs that focus on family members and military "buddies" — people who could be more likely to notice that a servicemember is thinking about suicide.

Lt. Col. David Crary, a chaplain at U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan, said troops already see or hear messages about suicide prevention almost daily — through leaflets, regular training and suicide-prevention information cards handed out during in-processing.

They’re taught to look for such signs as depression, loss of appetite, and changes in sleep patterns and personality. Training comes before deployments and in peacetime theaters, he said.

"I think it’s across the board — if it’s here in Korea or Germany or stateside, I think the emphasis is equal," he said. "Because of the simplicity of the training and the instructions that we give them, I think any soldier at any level would be aware of what to look for and what to do."

Crary said suicide is a "real problem" in the military, although he hasn’t noticed a rise or fall in the number of troops contemplating suicide.

"I think it’s probably on par with society at large," he said. "I think it gets more attention because it’s in the military."

Volpe said the military tracks suicides only among current servicemembers. That means if a former servicemember with post-traumatic stress disorder or other deployment-related mental health problems commits suicide, the military doesn’t record it.


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