[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/04/13/art.marinepatrol.helmand.jpg caption="The number of suicides in the U.S. military has risen the past five years in a row."]
From the invasion of Afghanistan until last summer, the U.S. military had lost 761 soldiers in combat there. But a higher number in the service — 817 — had taken their own lives over the same period. The surge in suicides, which have risen five years in a row, has become a vexing problem for which the Army's highest levels of command have yet to find a solution despite deploying hundreds of mental-health experts and investing millions of dollars. And the elephant in the room in much of the formal discussion of the problem is the burden of repeated tours of combat duty on a soldier's battered psyche.
The problem is exacerbated by the manpower challenges faced by the service, because new research suggests that repeated combat deployments seem to be driving the suicide surge. The only way to apply the brakes will be to reduce the number of deployments per soldier and extend what the Army calls "dwell time" — the duration spent at home between trips to war zones. But the only way to make that possible would be to expand the Army's troop strength, or reduce the number of soldiers sent off to war.
"It's frankly frustrating that with the level of effort that we've put out there, that we haven't stemmed the [suicide] tide," General George Casey, the Army's top officer, told a House panel March 23. When pressed by a lawmaker the previous month on whether the Army was getting closer to solving the challenge, Army Secretary John McHugh was blunt. "Sadly, the answer is not much closer," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee Feb. 23. "As to why people take this step — particularly as to why men and women in uniform do — we're still in many ways befuddled."
Befuddled and frustrating are not words routinely deployed by Army leaders. But the service's suicide rate continues to rise (it doubled between 2001 and 2006) while remaining flat in the civilian population, even when adjusted to reflect the Army's age and gender. Last year, 160 active-duty soldiers killed themselves, up from 140 in 2008 and 77 in 2003. In order to get a better grip on the causes of the problem, the service has issued new orders telling its commanders how to conduct future suicide investigations so that they are consistent across the board, spokesman Gary Tallman says. The directive's stated goal is to pinpoint "the circumstances, methods and contributing factors surrounding the event" in hopes of generating "clear, relevant and practical recommendation(s) to prevent future suicides." The Army wants to know all about the dead soldier's personal relationships, final conversation, financial status, recent moods and other personality traits.
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