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HEIDELBERG, Germany — Hiring more mental health counselors, asking soldiers to keep tabs on each other’s mental health and working to remove the stigma of getting psychological help are all well and good.

But the single most important thing the Army could do to relieve stress on Army troops and reduce the number of suicides, the Army’s top enlisted leader said Friday, is to give troops a chance to just slow down.

Increasing "dwell time" — the amount of time soldiers have at home between combat deployments — would prevent some problems, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth Preston said.

"A dwell time increase — it allows a unit to slow down, get back to normality" he said. "It affects not only the soldier and family and stability," he said, it would also slow down the current, rushed tempo of deployment, coming home, going to a new post, becoming part of a new unit and deploying again.

"It’s not one particular thing" that is stressing the force and driving up suicides, he said. "It’s the military operational pace and tempo."

Preston, who was visiting soldiers in Germany this week, was interviewed the day after 13 people were shot to death and 30 more wounded at Fort Hood, Texas. The Army said the shooter was an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, armed with two handguns.

Preston declined to speculate on what had happened and why at Fort Hood. But the fact that Hasan, a psychiatrist in the Army since 1995, who reportedly was facing an unwanted combat deployment, remained alive would enable authorities to get some answers — "to go in and understand why," Preston said.

"It’s a tragedy, a terrible loss of life," Preston said. "The focus right now is to take care of the victims and support the victims’ families."

The shooting, said to be the worst ever on an Army base, comes six months after another soldier opened fire at a stress clinic in Iraq, killing five other soldiers.

It also comes at a time when the rate of suicide among soldiers has continued to increase for the past five years. For the first time last year the rate of 20.2 of suicides per 100,000, was higher than the rate of young male civilians, at 19.2 in 2006, the most recent year available. The rise is especially notable in that for decades the Army’s suicide rate was less than that of civilians, probably, experts said, because of the increased social and economic support provided.

Suicide and homicide are related, experts say, in that both are associated with aggression. Statistics show men comprise the vast majority of suicides, as well as commit the majority of homicides.

Further, a phenomenon known as "suicide by cop" involves suicidal people either threatening violence or committing violence with the intention of being killed by police. A study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences reported that 36 percent of police shootings could be classified as suicide by cop.

So far this year, 117 active-duty Army soldiers, nearly all of them men, were reported to have committed suicide, with 81 of those cases confirmed. That’s up from 103 suicides during the same period last year.

"I look at every suicide case. It’s briefed in excruciating detail," Preston said. "Every one is a bizarre set of circumstances. In a lot of cases, if you look at it, there are indications," Preston said, but they’re "spread out over time" and difficult to put together without the benefit of hindsight.

Fort Hood has the highest number of suicides among Army installations since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, according to The Washington Post, which was citing official data.

Ten suicides have been reported at Fort Hood this year, and more than 75 troops at the base have committed suicide since 2003, according to the Post.

Combat stress and deployment disruptions to family life are thought to be significant factors in the increasing numbers of suicides — and the risk increases with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, frequent post-combat diagnoses exacerbated by repeated deployments.

But a third of soldier suicides had never deployed, Army figures show. According to Salon, Army data does not show whether some troops killed themselves after being informed they would be deployed.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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