Last year, 121 active-duty soldiers took their own lives, the highest number on record since the Army began tracking suicides in 1980. Attempted suicides among soldiers are up, too, numbering 2,100 in 2007 - six times the rate in 2002.
While part of the increase may be due to improved reporting methods, repeated and lengthy deployments coupled with strained personal relationships may be contributing as well, says the Army surgeon general's psychiatric consultant, Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, MPH. Ritchie notes that most attempts have occurred after a soldier receives a "Dear John" or "Dear Jane" break-up letter or e-mail.
To help prevent suicides, the Army is recruiting more military and civilian behavioral health providers, including psychologists, and providing updated suicide-prevention training to all soldiers, with special emphasis on primary-care providers and Army chaplains, Ritchie says. Based on a decades-old tactic and the Warrior Ethos statement, "I will never leave a fallen comrade," all soldiers also receive a suicide-intervention card that encourages them to look out for fellow soldiers who may be struggling emotionally and to accompany them to get help.
"A lot of soldiers may not be willing to get help for themselves but they're willing to get help for their buddies," Ritchie says.
Lt. Col. John Morris, a chaplain with the Minnesota National Guard, agrees, noting that the buddy system can be helpful when troops return home as well. Since 2005, through the state's soldier reintegration program, the Guard has put at least four soldiers on 72-hour suicide watches after self-reports or alerts from comrades indicated unresolved emotional issues.
"The program validates the fact that coming home is not easy," Morris says. "And it teaches them how to deal with it in a healthy way."