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WASHINGTON — Military officials promised to conduct more suicide prevention education and hire more psychiatrists to stem an alarming rise in the number of servicemembers who have killed themselves in recent years.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff for the Army, called the suicide figures for his service "unacceptable" and fixing them "the most difficult and critical mission" of his military career.

"The reality is, there is no simple solution," he said. "It is going to require a multi-disciplinary approach, and a team effort at every level of command."

According to the Army, there were 140 confirmed suicides last year and another seven probable suicides still under investigation. That’s up from 115 in 2007, and 101 in 2006.

The other services reported similar trends, each seeing an increase in their suicide rates in the last two years. Wednesday’s hearing was designed to address plans to deal with the rate of military suicides, which is above the national average.

"Despite the services best efforts, there is still a lot of work to be done," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who called the numbers "alarming."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the issue Wednesday with Pentagon reporters.

“What I am told is that one of the principle causes of suicide among our men and women in uniform is broken relationships. And it’s hard not to imagine repeated deployments don’t have an impacted on those relationships …

“[It] just seems to me common sense that repeated deployments have got to weight very heavily on relationships. … I will always feel that the 15-month deployments were a real strain on many of our men and women in uniform as well.”

In January, Army leaders ordered a "stand-down" so all soldiers could receive suicide prevention training.

Chiarelli said more training is on the way — over the next four months, all soldiers will receive additional classes highlighting mental health problems and resources available to those suffering from such issues.

"I can assure members of the committee — this is not business as usual," he said.

Marines also will receive additional suicide prevention training this month. The Air Force last month unveiled a new 11-point training program for its airmen. Naval leaders promised a review of their prevention programs as well.

Earlier this month, Rep. Michael McMahon, D-N.Y., introduced legislation mandating all returning troops have one-on-one meetings with a licensed health profession within three to six months to screen for signs of brain trauma and suicidal tendencies.

Brian Altman, acting chief operating officer for Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, said the services have made improvements on the issue in the last year.

But they still need to hire more medical professionals to handle troops suffering from depression — a promise they’ve been making for several years, he said — and to do a better job educating about signs of suicidal thoughts.

"They’ve done a good job with troops … but many times those who commit suicide are not in theater," he said. "So we would like to see them try and educate spouses and other family members, too, so they can identify the warning signs."

Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this report.

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