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Rise of Military Suicides Driven By More Than War

Deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, and being affected by the stresses of others around you being deployed, is certainly one of those factors. But in 2010, 54 percent of the U.S. military suicides had no history of deployment and 89 percent had no combat history, Garrick said.

Congress has included suicide prevention measures in several recent defense policy bills. During debate on the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill, the Senate adopted several new amendments on this score. One by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, would require a study of the effectiveness of an Army program to improve soldiers’ psychological resilience. Another Collins amendment would set up a program for the Army to collect unused prescription drugs from soldiers’ homes, as she says the Army has found that 29 percent of suicides had a history of using psychotropic medications.

The Senate also adopted a multifaceted amendment by Democrat Patty Murray of Washington that is aimed at creating a standardized suicide prevention program across the Defense Department and improving services at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We are losing the battle,” Murray said on the floor.

Military officials have approached the issue from just about every angle. They have sought to train and educate their personnel, starting with leaders, on how to recognize warning signs and how to help. They’ve tried to reduce the stigma associated with talking about psychological problems and to ensure careers are not threatened if people admit they need support. They’ve stepped up questionnaires and interviews with soldiers returning from war, increased counseling and created a confidential hotline and website (militarycrisisline.net).

“We want people to know that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness,” Garrick said. “It’s going to hurt your career more if you don’t get help.”

Over in the House, Holt was spurred to be active on this issue by the 2008 suicide of a constituent, Army Sgt. Coleman Bean. In the fiscal 2012 spending measure, Holt helped secure $40 million for prevention efforts, split evenly between the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs budgets. But a year later, he complains that these agencies are not spending the money on outreach and counseling programs, including one called Vets4Warriors, as directed by Congress.

“At this point, the Pentagon has the money it requested, and it has data demonstrating the effectiveness of peer-to-peer counseling,” Holt said in a written statement. “But the money is being spent ineffectively, and programs like Vets4Warriors that could save lives are being underutilized.”

The Pentagon’s Garrick said the Vets4Warriors program is being implemented and Defense officials would work with lawmakers to address any concerns.

John M. Donnelly is editor of CQ Roll Call’s Executive Briefing-Defense.

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