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WASHINGTON — With troubling suicide rates among young veterans, Adm. Mike Mullen said Wednesday that the military needs to engage the departing servicemember more during the separation process, which is now little more than a countdown of days, and perform an evaluation of their “readiness to be discharged.”

Leaders should ask whether an individual is “actually ready to transition into civilian society,” the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff said, speaking at the second annual military suicide prevention conference led by the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.

Mullen acknowledged that firm end dates on contracts makes accomplishing a meaningful evaluation process difficult but ultimately, he said, if the military “gets that right, the individual will be better off — and so will society.”

He also said it’s time the Pentagon asked for the “VA’s view of who we are sending them.”

Mullen’s tone and call to action was familiar after the Pentagon’s push last year to get a handle on suicides and deal with mental health issues. For the fifth year in a row, suicide numbers increased in 2009 with more than 140 servicemembers taking their own lives. The Pentagon is expected to release the final count on Thursday.

Mullen said despite no scientifically proven correlation between the number of combat deployments and the risk for suicide, “I’m hard pressed to believe that’s not the case.”

His wife, Deborah, also spoke at the event, saying more attention needs to be paid to the mental health of families and suicide prevention training should be given to spouses, too. In 2009, nine Army family members killed themselves, she said, noting that not all the services keep track of family suicides.

And when it comes to suicide attempts among the families of servicemembers, she said she was stunned to learn there were too many to keep count.

RELATED LINKS:National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255).Suicide prevention conference Web site: http://www.dcoe.health.mil/training/upcomingconferences.aspx

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