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CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — The 2nd Infantry Division is stepping up suicide-prevention efforts in response to a spike in suicides and suicide attempts by its soldiers.

Division mental-health officials recorded 52 suicide attempts and “suicidal gestures” by 2nd ID soldiers during 2003 — the most in the past decade.

Capt. Deborah McCoy, division officer in charge of mental health, released data last week showing 30 2nd ID soldiers attempted to take their own lives in 2003, up from 20 in 2002. Of those 30, two resulted in deaths and one was a suspected suicide, up from none during the previous two years. The data also shows suicidal gestures — in which a soldier attempts self-harm without the intent to die — rose from 21 in 2002 to 22 in 2003.

Data is not yet available on why the 2nd ID soldiers tried to kill themselves but McCoy believes the problem is related to changed patterns of overseas deployment.

“We had a lot of involuntary extensions last year, which added to people’s stress, and for a while the bulk of people coming to the division were first-time soldiers out of basic (training).

“The experienced soldiers were deploying to Iraq,” she said. “We were getting a lot of new soldiers away from family for the first time. Some of that could be contributing to the difficulties soldiers are having.”

Now soldiers are serving in combat in Iraq, returning home for a short time, then deploying to South Korea, McCoy said.

“We are seeing an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder. It has been awhile since we have dealt with PTSD that is combat-related,” she said.

One soldier’s PTSD was so bad he had to be medically evacuated back to the United States, she said.

“People who make a suicide attempt are truly intending to die and something has prevented that from happening — the rope breaks when they try to hang themselves or somebody finds them after they take pills,” McCoy said.

“A gesture is where they try some sort of self-harm but their intent may not necessarily be to die. They are feeling overwhelmed, they want the pain to go away and they want some sort of help,” she said.

Lt. Col. Mike Tarvin, 2nd ID chaplain, gave a suicide-prevention seminar during Tuesday safety briefings at Camp Red Cloud, advising soldiers to watch for signs of depression in their colleagues and intervene if necessary.

Tarvin said many of the suicidal gestures by 2nd ID soldiers involve alcohol or drugs.

In the Korean War movie “M*A*S*H*,” one of the characters feels suicidal after breaking up with his girlfriend but is talked out of it by characters BJ and Hawkeye, who show him life offers other opportunities, Tarvin said, before quoting the movie’s theme song “Suicide Is Painless.”

“The song is sarcastic,” he said, adding that suicide is painful for the victim’s friends, co-workers and family.

During the seminar, Tarvin showed soldiers newspaper articles discussing the impact of suicides.

“I talked about the guilt other people feel or if you have a family, the hardship it brings on them,” he told Stripes.

The spike in suicide statistics also might be explained by more reporting of attempts, he said.

The division commander, Maj. Gen. John Wood, has authorized extra training and created a counseling line staffed by mental-health professionals during the day and chaplains and their assistants after hours, Tarvin said.

Soldiers feeling suicidal can call HELP (DSN 4357) on any military phone 24 hours a day for counseling, he said, adding that the line has been open for almost two months but has seen limited use.

Division chaplain assistant Chantel Sena-Diaz, who also spoke at the suicide seminar, said 30,000 people kill themselves each year in the United States. In the military in the past decade, a battalion-sized element — about 830 soldiers — has committed suicide, she said.

Sena-Diaz told soldiers to watch for behavioral signs such as changed eating or sleeping habits or someone having a sudden lift in spirits or suddenly becoming depressed.

“A good soldier who suddenly starts missing formations” might be suicidal, she said.

The most prevalent factor in soldiers’ suicide attempts is loss of a relationship, Sena-Diaz said. Seventy-five percent of soldiers who attempt suicide have lost a relationship, such as through a death in the family or a marital breakup, she said.

“A lady came in who had her cat die. To some people it may seem absurd but that animal was important to her. She was suicidal and talked to the chaplain because she was feeling so depressed,” Sena-Diaz said.

Those attending the seminar learned about “HHW” syndrome — hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness, she said.

“Individuals feel like there is nothing else they can do and they have exhausted all their options. We also talk about loss of a job, finances and work performance,” she said.

Soldiers should not be afraid to act if they spot signs of suicidal tendencies in others. Statistics show 80 percent of soldiers who commit suicide give some prior indication, Sena-Diaz said.

“We can save eight out of 10 people if we recognize the signs and take action,” she said. “If you see these signs and indicators, confront the person and ask them if they are suicidal, then take action. Send them to the right people — the chaplain, chain of command, mental-health professionals, the military police. There are a number of people they can go to get help.”

The chaplaincy works with U.S. suicide counseling service Living Works to provide soldiers with applied suicide intervention skills, she said. Every soldier in the Army receives suicide-prevention training twice a year, she said, and the Army is equipping mental-health professionals with intervention skills.

“We are meeting every soldier in the division at the replacement center when they arrive in Korea and giving them a brochure, a class from mental health on suicide and a wallet card with information on what to do if they are feeling depressed,” Sena-Diaz said, “including the HELP line number.”

The division also has established a suicide-prevention working group. Chaplains are teaching suicide-prevention skills to every junior leader who is an E-5, E-6 or lieutenant at the Junior Leaders Symposium; first sergeants and unit commanders get the briefings at the Warrior Leader course, she said.

Fighting back

Army officials say they are taking swift steps to improve mental-health services for troops in Iraq and Kuwait in the wake of a study on suicides there, officials said Thursday.

The Army has recorded 24 suicides in Iraq and Kuwait between April 2003 and March, with three more under investigation. The Marine Corps recorded two. There were no reported Air Force or Navy suicides, though one sailor’s death is under investigation.

Among the new Army measures:

• Sending behavioral-health experts and improving logistics to get antidepressants and sleeping pills to combat troops immediately.

• Assigning one mental-health care provider per company, a change from the previous plan of one per brigade.

Marine Corps efforts include:

• The OSCAR (Operational Stress Control And Readiness) program, which embeds mental-health providers and specially trained noncommissioned officers with front-line warriors.

— Sandra Jontz

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