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ARLINGTON, Va. – Soldier suicides in the Army in 2009 are on pace to top last year’s numbers but Army officials said Tuesday they believe a decline in the rate of such deaths signals they are making progress in grappling with the problem.

With two months still left in the year, the number of active-duty Army troops believed to have taken their own lives stands at 140 — the same number for all of 2008, officials said.

“We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year,” Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli told a Pentagon press conference. “This is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of these numbers in any way.”

Nevertheless, Chiarelli added, “we are finally beginning to see progress being made.”

That’s because nearly one-third of the deaths occurred in January and February, and “since March the general trend line -- with exception of a couple of months -- is down,” he said.

Still, another jump in suicide figures for 2009 would make it the fifth straight year that such deaths have set a record as troops continue to come under the stress of two overseas wars. There were 115 Army suicides in 2007 and 102 in 2006.

Even those numbers don’t show the whole picture of war-related suicides because they don’t include deaths after people have left the military.

Officials said that another 71 soldiers who weren’t on active duty have killed themselves so far this year -- 14 more than in 2008.

The Army has launched a number of new suicide-prevention programs to try to reduce the suicide rate, but officials conceded they are still largely baffled by the problem.

For example, Chiarelli said, officials can’t figure out why the number of suicides is higher at some bases than others.

Fort Bragg, N.C., is twice the size of Fort Campbell, Ky., for example, but Fort Bragg has had significantly fewer suicides, Chiarelli noted.

“What we do know is the rate of suicide does go up during periods of conflict compared to periods when the nation is not at war,” Robert Heinssen, a clinical psychologist with the National Institute of Mental Health, said in a separate interview. “The war is eight years old and we don’t tend to fight wars this long … it’s kind of extraordinary.”

Heinssen is the director of the Army Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members, a five-year, $50 million joint Army and NIMH project to examine suicides, identify their causes and find ways to prevent them.

Although about two-thirds of soldiers who committed suicide had been deployed downrange, there is no data that indicates whether deployment to either Afghanistan or Iraq is more likely to lead to suicide, said Col. Chris Philbrick, deputy director of the Army’s Suicide Prevention Task Force.

“I would say that (deployment) is definitely a contributing factor, but it is not the sole factor,” Heinssen said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Mark Abramson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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