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Army putting spin on Iraq suicides
Army Times
By Robert Weller - The Associated Press
August 27, 2007

DENVER — Some veterans organizations, soldiers' relatives and psychiatrists are raising questions about an Army report that says no direction connection has been found between long troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and the army's highest suicide rate since the first Gulf War.

The Army report, released Aug. 16, said love and marriage problems were the main reasons for the highest rate of suicides since 1991. Nearly a third of the 99 who committed suicide in 2006 were in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"This is yet another example of the administration hiding the true costs of this war," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

"From our troops to their spouses to family advocates — everyone agrees that extended deployments put added strain on families," Murray said. "To say that the strain of deployment is not a cause of (post-traumatic stress disorder) and suicide is the same kind of head-in-the-sand logic we've seen from this administration since the war began."

Army spokesman John Boyce said that researchers "could not document that long deployments" were directly behind the suicide rate.

Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, did tell a Pentagon news conference when the report was released that although the military is worried about the stress caused by repeat deployments and tours of duty that have been stretched to 15 months, it has not found a direct relationship between suicides and combat or deployments.

"However, we do know that frequent deployments put a real strain on relationships, especially on marriages," she said. "So we believe that part of the increase is related to the increased stress in relationships."

Researcher Laurie Leitch, a psychotherapist at the Boulder, Colo.-based Trauma Research Institute, said much more research is needed to determine what is increasing the suicide rate.

"But even if relationship problems are the main cause, the relationship problems are very likely to be at least in part due to traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries" that are the war's signature wound, Leitch said.

The Army's fourth mental health review of Operation Iraqi Freedom found some gaps in tracking suicide attempts, which were originally designed for use in garrisons, not on the battlefield. For example, while the survey "contains general questions about the deployment, questions regarding the relationship of the suicide or suicide attempt to key deployment events/experiences are missing."

The report, completed in November and released in May, said there is no mechanism for tracking the accuracy of suicide attempt reports. It also said "the multi-dimensional aspects of suicides and the rarity of suicides" makes it impossible to determine the causes.

Nancy Lessin, co-founder of the five-year-old Military Families Speak Out, said its 3,600 members include many families whose spouses suffered from stress — and a growing number who have committed suicide.

"From the very earliest, we started hearing about suicide effects and psychological effects from the war, and it has always been about what servicemen see and do in this war. It is not getting ‘Dear John letters,"‘ Lessin said.

April Somdahl, a member of Lessin's group, said her brother, Brian Jason Rand, was determined to be unfit for combat after his first deployment to Iraq because he had been traumatized. But he was deployed a second time, and he killed himself in February after returning. She said the Army declined to investigate his death when the family inquired.

"The main thing was that he was so traumatized. And it traumatized him to see what he and the other troops were going through," Somdahl said. "When the human voice is screaming out ‘I've PTSD or brain damage,' they need to listen," the Trenton, N.C. resident said.

Stephen Robinson, a Ranger who served in the Gulf War and represents Veterans for America, said the suicide rate does not include those who killed themselves after leaving active duty.

"For the soldiers in Iraq it is like 9/11 every day," said Robinson.

Andrew Pogany, an investigator for Robinson's group, said repeated deployments make PTSD likely if not inevitable, and could increase the suicide risk. "Humans are not meant to be in combat every day for such long periods," Pogany said.

An Army review of the mental health of soldiers, done in November but only released in May, said that never before in the nation's history had U.S. soldiers faced such lengthy deployments without relief. Soldiers in Iraq got about two weeks home leave during their 12-month tours, plus travel days, and will get some additional days now that they are facing 15 months.

Before the Army report's release, the Rand Corp. think tank did research for the Army, released in April, that said the incidence of divorce in the nation's military was no higher after four years of war than it was in peacetime a decade earlier.

Original Text