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Suicide killing more soldiers than battle

After the US army announces a record number of suicides, officials say they are investigating 24 more cases in January alone.

WASHINGTON // Less than a week after the US army announced a record number of suicides among its soldiers in 2008, officials have said they are investigating as many as 24 more cases in January alone. Army officials reported on Thursday that seven confirmed and 17 suspected suicides took place last month - more than the number of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

In the same period in 2008, four suicides were recorded; the two years before that, there were six and 10 suicides in January, respectively. "Each of these losses is a personal tragedy that is felt throughout the army family," said Gen Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the army. "The trend and trajectory seen in January further heightens the seriousness and urgency that all of us must have in preventing suicides."

The disclosure comes as the army, grappling with the fourth consecutive annual increase, is stepping up its efforts to understand both why the suicides are occurring and how they can be prevented. Pete Geren, the secretary of the army, recently called the problem a "crisis of our army family". Next Sunday the army is launching a month-long programme, called a "stand down", in which troops will be trained to detect suicidal behaviours and encouraged to intervene if they suspect a friend is in trouble. That effort will be followed by a 120-day programme centred around suicide prevention.

The army's annual suicide report, which was issued last month, confirmed 128 suicides in 2008, up from 115 the previous year. A further 15 deaths are under review as suspected suicides; the majority of those are expected to be confirmed as such. If all are ultimately found to have been suicides, the rate in the army would rise to 202 per one million individuals, slightly higher than that for the general civilian population. The national suicide rate, adjusted to reflect the make-up of the army, is 195 per 1m individuals.

Mr Geren said at a news briefing last month there was no clear or single explanation for the increase, or a simple solution for fixing it. But officials said stress was certainly a factor, given the strain of long and repeated combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and the stresses and burdens they can put on a family. "I think that we all come to the table believing that stress is a factor, it is definitely a factor," said Gen Chiarelli, who has been tapped to lead the army's suicide prevention effort.

About one-third of last year's suicides were committed by soldiers deployed overseas, one-third by those who had returned home from a deployment, and the remainder by those who had never deployed, he said. The army has partnered with the national institutes of mental health on a five-year study of the mental and behavioural health of its soldiers. eniedowski@thenational.ae

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