Marine suicides are on the rise

The Baltimore Sun

SAN DIEGO - The basic rule for Marine boot camp is simple: Keep your mouth shut and mind your own business.

But it's different when the subject is suicide.

Drill instructors encourage recruits to share their feelings in so-called "guided discussions," and tell them to watch out for, and promptly report, warning signs in their friends.

The suicide rate in the active-duty Marine Corps was 16.5 per 100,000 in 2007 - below the active-duty Army and a similar demographic in the civilian population. But it was a jump from 12.9 in 2006.

In the first six months of this year, 25 Marines committed suicide, the most in that length of time since records have been kept. If that early trend persists, 2008 could prove the most deadly year for Marine suicides since at least the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

"Current prevention strategies are being evaluated and developed to respond to this increase, and the ongoing wartime demands and associated stressors confronting Marines," said Navy Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, manager of the Marine Corps' suicide prevention program.

"Training is being conducted for Marines, leaders, counselors, chaplains, family members and front-line installation staff who have routine contact with young Marines."

In April, representatives of all the military branches came to San Diego for a weeklong conference to hear from civilian experts and discuss ways to improve prevention programs.

The Marine Corps provides advanced training in suicide prevention for chaplains, corpsmen, mental health specialists and career counselors. But the first line of defense against suicide remains the young Marine, who is in the best position to notice changes in a friend. Learning how to recognize warning signs is a key element of training, which begins at boot camp and is reinforced later, particularly as Marines prepare to deploy.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, 72 recruits sat on the floor of their barracks listening to a senior drill instructor talk about suicide. Two days earlier, they had heard a lecture from a chaplain about how to spot suicidal tendencies.

Now the drill instructor was checking to see what they remembered from the lecture and encouraging them to talk about past experiences. When he asked how many had known someone who committed or attempted suicide, nearly one-third of the hands shot up.

For the session, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Romer dropped the gruff, demanding voice of the classic drill instructor. Now he was an older brother. By prearrangement, two recruits role-played, with one the would-be suicide, the other his shipmate. Then Romer asked recruits for their views about suicide.

"The people who die like that are the worst friggin' people you'll ever meet," a recruit told Romer. "All you're doing is taking your burden and throwing it on other people's burdens."

One recruit said that his grandfather committed suicide after his grandmother died of cancer. Another said he had come home and found his mother hanging. Several said they had had to wrestle guns and knives away from friends.

Romer listened to them and provided perspective; "There's nothing here that is so bad it's worth taking your life."

He also reinforced the chaplain's message that it's the duty of the individual Marine to intervene when a friend starts showing possible signs that he is thinking of suicide: giving away his possessions, acting unusually listless, withdrawing from contact, getting angry for no reason, showing a preoccupation with death.

Judging from risk factors, Marine enlistees are prime candidates for suicide. They are young men far from home and family support. They are being stressed to their mental and physical limits. Their coping skills are still maturing.

Once recruits graduate from boot camp, the risk factors only increase with easy access to weapons, the probability of repeated deployments to Iraq, the likelihood of "Dear John" letters from girlfriends who grow tired of waiting.

The majority of Marine suicides occur stateside. Of the 25 who killed themselves this year, eight had never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, 15 had a war-zone deployment but had returned, and two committed suicide in Iraq.

Tony Perry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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