By Mark Benjamin
March 19, 2009 | WASHINGTON -- The Senate Armed Services Committee hearings Wednesday on the rising suicide rate among U.S. ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed some frightening new data, but did little to investigate the underlying causes of what is emerging as one of the darkest, most disturbing legacies of the wars.
Last year the Army had its highest suicide rate on record -- 140 soldiers. But new data from the Army on Wednesday showed the number jumping even higher. Forty-eight soldiers have already killed themselves so far this year. If that rate keeps up, nearly 225 Army soldiers will be dead by their own hand by the end of 2009.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called the latest trends "alarming." Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli admitted, "I, and the other senior leaders of our Army, readily acknowledge that these current figures are unacceptable."
A Senate hearing is an oddly sterile way to plumb the depths of this heart-wrenching problem. The soldiers overdosing in the barracks at Fort Carson or putting their M16s to their heads in Iraq are mostly lower-ranking troops, privates and specialists. But on Wednesday, the Senate only heard testimony from star-studded top military officials, such as Chiarelli, Marine Corps Gen. James Amos and Navy Adm. Patrick Walsh. There wasn't a private or specialist in the room, much less one who had attempted suicide who could tell the senators why he tried. Nor did Congress hear from any of the hundreds of frazzled, overworked and overwhelmed behavioral healthcare providers at Fort Bragg or Fort Campbell or any other base who seem ready to throw up their hands in frustration.
"The Army is taking a hard look at every single facet of our organization to make a determination on what can and should be done to address this problem," Chiarelli announced antiseptically.
A recent series in Salon (below) revealed that soldiers returning from long tours in Iraq or Afghanistan suffering from combat stress were sometimes met with scorn from their superiors and something bordering on neglect from some medical officials. As their largely untreated problems deteriorated, their marriages unraveled under the strain. They turned to alcohol and drugs and in some cases saw no other way out than suicide.
Meanwhile, healthcare officials at various installations who are struggling to help say they're overwhelmed by huge numbers of troops returning from two, three or even four deployments with acute mental problems from combat.
Top brass in the military continue to be evasive about the problem, however. While some admit that combat stress may be a factor, others deny that seven long years of war with multiple deployments has anything to do with escalating suicide rates.
"We have been concerned that one outcome of the stress from operational deployments might be increased suicides," said Amos, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. "However, to date, we have not seen that hypothesis prove out," he added, noting that Marines with multiple deployments to war are not "overrepresented in the suicide population."
Rather, Amos pointed the finger at relationships."We have looked at the data to try to find answers that will enable us to address this needles loss of life," he said. "The most likely cause is a failed relationship with a woman," Amos said flatly.
Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff, inched toward admitting that war-related stress constituted part of the problem. "We are at war, and we have been at war for the past seven-plus years," he noted. "That has undeniably put a strain on our people and equipment," he admitted. "The reality is we are dealing with a tired and stretched force."
He quickly added that other factors, including marital discord, family disagreements, legal, financial and work problems, may have caused the spike in suicides.
Even without an Army private or healthcare worker in the Senate hearing room to pierce through the fog of data, the numbers themselves seem to blame combat-related stress. The Marine Corps, the other service besides the Army doing the grunt work in Iraq and Afghanistan, has also seen significant increases in the number of suicides over each of the past three years. Two-thirds of the Army soldiers who committed suicide had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. And while the suicide rates among the Army and Marine Corps ground troops reached an all-time high of around 19 suicides per 100,000 troops last year, rates in the Navy and Air Force have remained relatively flat at around 11.5.
The Army has implemented a "chain teaching" of suicide prevention for a 120-day period, according to Chiarelli. Army commanders along with their troops recently received a two-hour training session on suicide prevention and each unit also got a video on the subject.
But a behavioral health worker at a southern Army installation described her current job climate like a car repair shop, with every slot full in the garage and a line going down the block. I asked her if the new programs would stem the tide of suicides. "No," she answered.
History may not look kindly on the Senate's efforts to oversee the matter, either. "The committee staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee have been advised of the reasons for increasing suicides over the last four years," said Steve Robinson, a veterans advocate who has tried to alert the Senate of the problems while working for a number of advocacy groups. "They have had medical records delivered to them showing inappropriate care and cases of service members who have not received proper treatment," he added. "When they say they are mystified as to why suicides occur, it mystifies me why they don't understand and refuse to talk about what is really happening," he said. "This was not an honest assessment of why people are committing suicide."
Death in the USA: The Army's fatal neglect
About This Series - "Coming Home" is a weeklong investigative series on preventable deaths at Fort Carson, a U.S. Army post in Colorado, among troops who have returned from combat tours in Iraq.
Salon national correspondent Mark Benjamin and Colorado-based journalist Michael de Yoanna reviewed more than two dozen incidents of suicide, suicide attempts, prescription drug overdoses and murder involving Fort Carson troops and examined 10 of those cases painstakingly. They interviewed troops, their families and survivors of suicide attempts, studied thousands of pages of medical and Army records and conducted a prison interview with a soldier convicted of being an accessory to the murder of one of his comrades. They learned that much of the violence could have been avoided if the Army did a better job of recognizing and treating the symptoms of PTSD.
Returning U.S. combat soldiers are committing suicide and murder in alarming numbers. In a special series, Salon uncovers the habitual mistreatment behind the preventable deaths.
Editor's note: This is the introduction to a weeklong series of stories called "Coming Home." Read the first story in the series here; see photos of Heidi Lieberman painting over her son's suicide note, and a copy of the "Hurt Feelings Report," here.
By Mark Benjamin and Michael de Yoanna
Feb. 9, 2009 | FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Preventable suicides. Avoidable drug overdoses. Murders that never should have happened. Four years after Salon exposed medical neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ultimately grew into a national scandal, serious problems with the Army's healthcare system persist and the situation, at least at some Army posts, continues to deteriorate.
This story is no longer just about lack of medical care. It's far worse than sighting mold and mouse droppings in the barracks. Late last month the Army released data showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Another 15 deaths are still under investigation as potential suicides. "Why do the numbers keep going up?" Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a Jan. 29 Pentagon news conference. "We can’t tell you." On Feb. 5, the Army announced it suspects 24 soldiers killed themselves last month, more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
But suicide is only one manifestation of the unaddressed madness and despair coming home with U.S. troops. Salon's close inspection of a rash of murders and suicides involving soldiers at just one base reveals that many of the deaths seem avoidable. Salon put together a sample of 25 suicides, prescription overdoses and murders among soldiers at Colorado's Fort Carson since 2004. Intensive study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of preventable deaths, meaning a suicide or murder might have been avoided if the Army had better handled the predictable, well-known symptoms of a malady rampant among combat veterans: combat-related stress and brain injuries. The results of Salon's investigation will be published in a weeklong series of articles that begins today with "The Death Dealers Took My Life!"
Salon chose Fort Carson as a laboratory almost by chance. The story started to emerge on its own last summer during reporting at Fort Carson that exposed an alleged friendly fire incident involving soldiers posted there. It was clear during several visits to interview soldiers who'd witnessed the deaths of their colleagues that there was psychological turmoil on the base. Paranoid soldiers were running around with guns. There was prescription and illicit drug abuse, extremely heavy drinking, suicide and murder.
The soldiers seemed to be suffering classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: explosions of anger, suicidal and homicidal ideation, flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia. The Army was responding, for the most part, with disciplinary action rather than treatment, evincing little concern for possible underlying problems. The soldiers self-medicated further. Predictable outcomes followed.
The Army handled the families of the disturbed and neglected soldiers callously. Last November, as detailed today in the first of Salon's multi-part series on preventable deaths at Fort Carson, officers provided paint for a mother to paint over her son's suicide note, which he had scrawled on a barracks wall. Two years after his return from Iraq, Army doctors still hadn't properly diagnosed him with PTSD. Two other troubled soldiers died after the Army handed them a brutally heavy and in one case toxic combination of drugs for their symptoms. In a moving prison interview, another soldier explained to Salon how better treatment might have prevented him, a month after returning from his second tour in Iraq, from being involved in the November 2007 murder of a fellow soldier.
There were other deadly blunders. In the press for warm bodies in Iraq, Fort Carson sent a soldier, diagnosed with PTSD and a brain injury, back into combat, where he committed suicide by overdosing on some of his eight prescription drugs. Medical records show Fort Carson dispatched another soldier to Iraq despite a diagnosis of "schizotypal personality disorder," characterized by peculiar beliefs and paranoia. On his return to Colorado, prosecutors say he raped a 19-year-old woman and slit her throat.
Salon documented several completely new cases. A few others have appeared in news articles, though not deeply explored.
After the Walter Reed scandal finally exploded in 2007, a presidential commission led by former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., responded by recommending in July 2007 a series of steps to aggressively treat combat stress, among other things. President Bush ordered a raft of initiatives to help returning troops. In interviews, Army officials produced a laundry list of new programs designed to address some of these very problems, from a 24-7 counseling hotline to hiring 250 new mental health professionals since the spring of 2007. Presumably, these programs saved some lives.
Out in the shadow of Pikes Peak, however, it is easy to find examples where the initiatives didn’t seem to ease the misery. At least three Fort Carson soldiers committed suicide just last month as we raced to complete our reporting.
And there are good reasons to think the problems fester far beyond Colorado. Shalala expressed concern at the apparent lack of progress at places like Fort Carson. "We clearly are not doing enough when they come back," she said in a telephone interview. "This doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar."
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