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The soldier suicide rate in Iraq has been climbing in recent months, surpassing normal rates and prompting mental health officials to take a hard look at what might be triggering troops to take their own lives, officials said.

Army mental health and suicide prevention experts returned to the United States this week after spending more than a month in Iraq, working to discern the mental condition of troops and probing not just 11 incidents of possible suicides, but several other deaths.

“The Army has become very sensitized to self-inflicted deaths, especially now with the ongoing war on terror and recognizing that soldiers are going to be over there for a while, at least for two more, yearlong rotations,” said Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd.

Two Marines committed suicide this year while deployed to the theater, both dying of self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head. A third incident in which a Marine fell asleep with a loaded weapon has been ruled an accident, said spokesman Bryan Driver. The Navy is investigating one incident as a possible suicide.

Deployments are rife with conditions that can lead to troops resorting to suicide: austere, harsh and dangerous environments, family separations and easy access to weapons, said Ted Bowers, a retired preacher and former Navy commander who served in the Persian Gulf War as the top chaplain in a field hospital based in Saudi Arabia. One of Bowers’ sons is a Stars and Stripes employee.

Sometimes, disturbing news, especially from home, can be too much to handle.

“In all of this dealing with troops, one of the greatest disservices that someone from home can do is write a ‘Dear John’ type letter,” said Bowers, using a term to describe when one person ends a relationship.

“One Marine I counseled was going to walk off into the desert. Just go off. His wife called and said she had been raped back in the States. … Another person was going to walk off in the desert, a more senior person, who had gotten word that his marriage was over.

“I’d see these young men and women trying to deal with issues of war, issues of killing and suffering, and then they’d get dumped on by a message coming from back home. It was too much to handle.”

While today’s troops are the best trained — on sophisticated equipment and in technology, Bowers said, “they’re not trained in human relations. That area has been neglected.”

In 2002, the Marine Corps averaged 12.6 suicides per 100,000, higher than the Army and Navy’s average of 11 per 100,000, and the Air Force’s rate of 9.5.

The Army’s mental health advisory team of 12 psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, psychiatric nurses and combat stress specialists is scheduled to submit a report to the Army’s surgeon general’s office by the end of October.

The team traveled to Iraq under the Army’s relatively new Deployment Cycle Support Program, which started, in part, following the wave of killings by soldiers returning to Fort Bragg, N.C., from war in Afghanistan, Rudd said.

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