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Sunday, January 18, 2004

Military suicide rate must be lowered


Editorial

The military's high suicide rate in Iraq is one form of "collateral damage" Americans cannot ignore. Pentagon officials, troubled by a spike in suicides in July, dispatched nine combat stress teams to Iraq and sent an assessment team to see what more can be done to keep soldiers from killing themselves.

The military seems to be responding as best it knows how with mental health care or medication, but that may not get at deeper causes, such as prolonged tours in which soldiers must serve as both combat forces and "peacekeepers." More investigation is needed. The Pentagon and Congress should take a harder look at use of reserves and National Guard troops for such hybrid missions.

The "all-volunteer military" tries to screen out recruits with mental health problems, but recruiters at the same time are pressured to fill the ranks, and depression may not surface until soldiers see combat.

The Pentagon documented 21 suicides in Iraq in 2003. The real number could be higher. That 21 translates into a suicide rate of 13.5 per 100,000. The Army's overall rate in 2002 was 10.9, and the nation's overall suicide rate in 2001 was 10.7 per 100,000. Last year's rate in Iraq didn't set a record. The Marines' suicide rate in 1993 was 20.9 per 100,000. That year, U.S. troops saw action in Somalia and Haiti.

Each division in Iraq has a psychiatrist, psychologist and a social worker, and about 400 troops have been evacuated out of Iraq for mental health care.

Troops in Iraq face complex stresses in helping rebuild a nation while armed resisters try to kill Americans. State Sen. Eric Fingerhut, a Cleveland Democrat challenging George Voinovich for his U.S. Senate seat, argues the National Guard should be kept for homeland security, and Congress should fund a trained, nation-building force for Iraq-type duty. Such ideas merit further discussion.

Pentagon officials also admit troops need faster medical care after they return home. More problems are expected this spring when tens of thousands of troops will be rotated in and out of Iraq. If they are good enough to risk their lives for us, they should get enough help that they don't lose hope at any stage of their service.




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