The suicide rate among Army soldiers reached its highest level in three decades in 2008, military officials said yesterday in a report that pointed to the inadequacy of anti-suicide efforts undertaken in recent years.
At least 128 soldiers took their own lives last year, representing an estimated suicide rate of 20.2 per 100,000, a sharp increase from the 2007 rate of 16.8.
It marked the first time the Army rate has exceeded the national suicide rate for the corresponding population group - 19.5 per 100,000 - since the Pentagon began systematically tracking suicides nearly 30 years ago.
The 2008 figure does not include 15 additional deaths under investigation that officials suspect were suicides.
Also yesterday, officials with the U.S. Marines revised their suicide numbers upward, reporting a rate of 19.0 per 100,000 last year, the highest for the Marines since 1995.
"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," Secretary of the Army Pete Geren said.
Army officials believe that emotional and psychological stress caused by repeated combat deployments have contributed, along with the toll that the tours have taken on marriages. About one-third of suicides occur during deployments overseas, one-third after deployments, and one-third among soldiers who never deploy.
"We all come to the table believing stress is a factor," said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff.
Between 2003 and 2007, the Pentagon frequently extended combat tours and barred soldiers from leaving at the end of their enlistment. The Defense Department in 2007 extended all overseas Army deployments to 15 months, from 12.
The blanket extension ended last year, and units beginning new tours now will serve a year. However, some units assigned 15-month tours must complete them before the longer deployments end this year.
Dr. Judith Broder, founder of the Soldier's Project, a counseling service for troops and their families in the Los Angeles area, said the repeated deployments caused some soldiers and Marines to lose faith in religion or themselves. Some become suicidal after abusing drugs or alcohol and they lose rational judgment in their altered state.
"They become extremely depressed and really hopeless, like, 'This is never going to end, I'm never going to be myself again, I'm never going to be able to be with my family again,' " she said.
Jose Coll, who chairs the Military Social Work Program at the University of Southern California, also blamed the frequent and lengthy deployments.
"And when the soldier comes back, it's not like he's on vacation. He comes back to training and that creates a lot of stress for the family," said Coll, who served in the Marine Corps.
Army officials said they realized that longer tours would increase strains on soldiers and their families, and attempted to head off problems by increasing the money spent on assistance programs from $700 million to $1.5 billion.
"We saw the stress, we recognized it," Geren said. "We could feel the pressure families and soldiers were under."
The Army and Defense Department stepped up mental health screening and hired more mental health professionals. The military also pushed resources into treating post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, battlefield wounds that have compounded stress on soldiers and their families.
Still, critics have said those efforts, particularly the mental health screening, have been inadequate.
"Until the Department of Defense starts taking aggressive action, the suicide crisis will get worse," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. "We are looking at the tip of an iceberg of a social catastrophe unless the military and VA start fighting stigma and start getting help for the veteran."
Cindy Williams, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is an expert on military personnel systems, said reporting a mental health infirmity cuts against the ethos of the Army.
"In the Army, there is a culture that says you don't get sick," she said. "Even if the Army wants to change the culture, it is hard for a soldier to go to a supervisor and say, 'I am thinking suicidal thoughts.' "
Military officials said they are seeking to change the culture, to let soldiers and Marines know it is OK to seek counseling and other help.