Soldiers committing suicide

By JASON NOTTE  |  March 17, 2009

Suicidal tendency
Tragic stories like Lucey's are becoming more commonplace. The journal Military Medicine found that, during an 11-month period in 2004, 30 percent of soldiers evaluated by mental-health staff in Iraq said they had considered suicide within the past week. (A DoD intelligence-center report on psychotropic drugs acknowledges this finding.) Of those, almost 64 percent said they had specific plans to kill themselves.

Four years later, the situation has worsened. The Army announced in January 2009 that its suicide rate hit 138 — or little more than 20 per 100,000 — this past year, which surpassed previous highs of 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006. (That's also higher than the suicide rate for the general population, which is 19.5 per 100,000.) And just this past week, the Army said it was investigating 24 potential suicides committed by troops in January and another 18 committed in February, up from 11 suicides in February 2008. If those numbers hold true, it will confirm what many have recently started to fear: that, for the first time since the wars began, monthly US troop deaths by suicide will have outpaced deaths in combat, and for two months in a row.

Among veterans, suicides are exponentially more frequent. The VA announced in September that 46 out of every 100,000 male veterans between the ages of 18 and 29 killed themselves in 2006, compared with 27 the year before. (For women, there was a slight improvement, as it was three in every 100,000, compared with eight in 100,000 the year before.)

Internal conversations at the VA suggest the situation is dire. According to court documents, when asked by the VA's media adviser in early 2008 whether it was true that 1000 veterans a day were attempting suicide, VA Director Ira Katz sent back an e-mail entitled "Shhh," confirming the number, but suggesting it be kept under wraps until the VA figured out the answer to this question: "Is the fact that we're stopping them good news, or is the sheer number bad news?"

PTSD is the acknowledged root cause of most of the suicides. The RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, a nonpartisan global-policy think tank, estimated this past year that 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD, or about 19 percent of all troops who have served in the two wars. The impact of that astonishing number is difficult to articulate (although Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz has theorized that the true cost of the wars, including post-war veterans care, will reach nearly $3 trillion — see "Iraq: Five Years Later," March 12, 2008, at thePhoenix.com). Treatments are slow, expensive, and highly individualized. So even when the Pentagon does diagnose traumatized personnel in time (that is, before they harm themselves or others), it merely doles out quick-and-dirty medications that may hide symptoms — then too often redeploys those troops overseas, anyway.

Untold numbers of traumatized active-duty US troops — specifically large numbers of those that John McCain praised during his failed presidential campaign for manning the "surge" — are taking prescription drugs with little or no medical supervision. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), mood enhancers, painkillers, and anti-anxiety medicines — Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, morphine, Valium, Ambien, Zoloft — are ill-advisedly helping unfit-for-duty soldiers keep it together on the battlefield. The DoD appears to be aware of this, but its policies allow for such drugs to be taken in combat, regardless of side effects. When the troops return home, doctors and vets say the cash-strapped VA has little more to offer than further medication and group therapy, which hardly assuage a vet's trauma or curb his dependence on prescription drugs.

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