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Veteran Suicides

Army suicides at record high - passing civilians

By Pauline Jelinek and Kimberly Hefling
Jan 29th 2009
Army-Suicides
Graphic shows active duty Army suicides from 1990 to 2008

    WASHINGTON – Stressed by war and long overseas tours, U.S. soldiers killed themselves last year at the highest rate on record, the toll rising for a fourth straight year and even surpassing the suicide rate among comparable civilians. Army leaders said they were doing everything they could think of to curb the deaths and appealed for more mental health professionals to join and help out.

    At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, the Army said Thursday. And the final count is likely to be even higher because 15 more suspicious deaths are still being investigated.

    "Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," said Army Secretary Pete Geren. "We can tell you that across the Army we're committed to doing everything we can to address the problem."

    It's all about pressure and the military approach, said Kim Ruocco, 45, whose Marine husband was an officer and Cobra helicopter pilot who hanged himself in a California hotel room in 2005. That was one month before he was to return to Iraq a second time.

    She said her husband, John, had completed 75 missions in Iraq and was struggling with anxiety and depression but felt he'd be letting others down if he sought help and couldn't return.

    "He could be any Marine because he was highly decorated, stable, the guy everyone went to for help," Ruocco said in a telephone interview. "But the thing is ... the culture of the military is to be strong no matter what and not show any weakness."
 
    Ruocco, of Newbury, Mass., was recently hired to be suicide support coordinator for the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. She said she feels that the military has finally started to reach out to suicide survivors and seek solutions.

    "Things move slowly, but I think they're really trying," Ruocco said.

    At the Pentagon on Thursday, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, made a plea for more professionals to sign on to work for the military.

   "We are hiring and we need your help," she said.

    Military leaders promised fresh prevention efforts will start next week.

    The new suicide figure compares with 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006 and is the highest since current record-keeping began in 1980. Officials expect the deaths to amount to a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, which is higher than the civilian rate — when adjusted to reflect the Army's younger and male-heavy demographics — for the first time in the same period of record-keeping.

    Officials have said that troops are under unprecedented stress because of repeated and long tours of duty due to the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Yearly increases in suicides have been recorded since 2004, when there were 64 — only about half the number now. Officials said they found that the most common factors were soldiers suffering problems with their personal relationships, legal or financial issues and problems on the job.

    But the magnitude of what the troops are facing in combat shouldn't be forgotten, said Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., a former Navy vice admiral, who noted he spoke with a mother this week whose son was preparing for his fifth combat tour.

    "This is a tough battle that the individuals are in over there," Sestak said. "It's unremitting every day."

    Said Dr. Paul Ragan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and a former Navy psychiatrist: "Occasional or sporadic visits by military mental health workers are like a Band-Aid for a gushing wound."

    The statistics released Thursday cover soldiers who killed themselves while they were on active duty — including National Guard and Reserve troops who had been activated.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suicide rate for U.S. society overall was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the latest year for which the agency has figures. But the Army says the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000 when adjusted.

    An earlier report showed the Marine Corps recorded 41 possible or confirmed suicides in 2008 — about 19 per 100,000 troops.

    The military's numbers don't include deaths after people have left the services. The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks those numbers and says there were 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the two ongoing wars.

    Army suicide prevention http://www.armyg1.army.mil/HR/suicide/default.asp

Original Link

16 US troops commit suicide in Iraq

September 8th 2008

Sixteen US troops from the a unit of the Airborne Division have committed suicide inside a military base in Iraq, security sources say.

Iraqi security sources have revealed that 21 US troops had committed suicide inside a former Iraqi air force base 27 days ago, Fars News Agency reported on Monday.

According to the sources, the 21 troops were treated in a hospital but only five soldiers have survived and they are in a critical condition. Security officials said they used potent narcotics to kill themselves.

The troops' motivations for suicide are not known but according to Iraqi sources the servicemen belonged to a unit of the US Airborne Division that was behind the massacre of several Iraqi families-- mostly women and children-- in northern Baghdad, said Ali al-Baghdadi an Iraqi security official.

The suicides took place in the soldiers' dormitory after the dinner time.

"The bodies of the US troops became misshapen such a way that they looked like 5000-year mummies," said a witness.

According to Iraqi officials' estimates, some 600 US troops, including senior officers, have committed suicide in Iraq since the invasion of the country in 2003. Half of the suicide attempts have been successful.


SB/DA

Veteran Suicides

18 every day, 1,000 attempts per month

Eighteen American war veterans kill themselves every day. One thousand former soldiers receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs attempt suicide every month. More veterans are committing suicide than are dying in combat overseas.

These are statistics that most Americans don't know, because the Bush administration has refused to tell them. Since the start of the Iraq War, the government has tried to present it as a war without casualties.

In fact, they never would have come to light were it not for a class action lawsuit brought by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth on behalf of the 1.7 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two groups allege the Department of Veterans Affairs has systematically denied mental health care and disability benefits to veterans returning from the conflict zones.

The case, officially known as Veterans for Common Sense vs. Peake, went to trial last month at a Federal Courthouse in San Francisco. The two sides are still filing briefs until May 19 and waiting for a ruling from Judge Samuel Conti, but the case is already having an impact.

That's because over the course of the two week trial, the VA was compelled to produce a series of documents that show the extent of the crisis effecting wounded soldiers.

"Shh!" begins one e-mail from Dr. Ira Katz, the head of the VA's Mental Health Division, advising a media spokesperson not to tell CBS News that 1,000 veterans receiving care at the VA try to kill themselves every month.

"Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail concludes.

Leading Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee immediately called for Katz's resignation. On May 6, the Chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Bob Filner (D-CA) convened a hearing titled "The Truth About Veteran's Suicides" and called Katz and VA Secretary James Peake to testify.

"That e-mail was in poor tone but the content was part of a dialogue about what we should do about new information," Katz s aid in response to Filner's questions. "The e-mail represents a healthy dialogue among members of VA staff about when it's appropriate to disclose and make public information early in the process."

Filner was nonplused and accused Katz and Peake of a "cover-up."

"We should all be angry about what has gone on here," Filner said. "This is a matter of life and death for the veterans that we are responsible for and I think there was criminal negligence in the way this was handled. If we do not admit, assume or know then the problem will continue and people will die. If that's not criminal negligence, I don't know what is."

It's also part of a pattern. The high number of veteran suicides weren't the only government statistics the Bush Administration was forced to reveal because of the class action lawsuit.

Another set of documents presented in court showed that in the six months leading up to March 31, a total of 1,467 veterans died waiting to learn if their disability claim would be approved by the government. A third set of documents showed that veterans who appeal a VA decision to deny their disability claim have to wait an average of 1,608 days, or nearly four and a half years, for their answer.

Other casualty statistics are not directly concealed, but are also not revealed on a regular basis. For example, the Pentagon regularly reports on the numbers of American troops "wounded" in Iraq (currently at 31,948) but neglects to mention that it has two other categories "injured" (10,180) and "ill" (28,451). All three of these categories represent soldiers who are so damaged physically they have to be medically evacuated to Germany for treatment, but by splitting the numbers up the sense of casualties down the public consciousness.

Here's another number that we don't often hear discussed in the media: 287,790. That's the number of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who had filed a disability claim with the Veterans Administration as of March 25th. That figure was not announced to the public at a news conference, but obtained by Veterans for Common Sense using the Freedom of Information Act.

Why all the secrecy? Why is it so hard to get accurate casualty figures out of our government? Because the Bush Administration knows if Americans woke up to the real, human costs of this war they would fight harder to oppose it.

Think back to 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, when leading neoconservative thinker and Donald Rumsfeld aide Ken Adelman predicted the war would be a "cakewalk."

Or consider this statement from Vice President Dick Cheney. Two days before the invasion, Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert the war would "go relatively quickly, (ending in) weeks rather than months."

Today, those comments are gone but the motivation behind them remains. This is why the VA's head of mental health wrote "Shh!" telling a spokesperson not to respond to a reporters' inquiry.

But all the shhing in the world cannot stop the horrible pain that's mounting after five years of war in Iraq and nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan.

Unpleasant Facts

According to an April 2008 study by the Rand Corporation, 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans currently suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Another 320,000 suffer from traumatic brain injury, physical brain damage. A majority are not receiving help from the Pentagon and VA system which are more concerned with concealing unpleasant facts than they are with providing care.

In its study, the RAND Corporation wrote that the federal government fails to care for war veterans at its own peril, noting post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury "can have far reaching and damaging consequences."

"Individuals afflicted with these conditions face higher risks for other psychological problems and for attempting suicide. They have higher rates of unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, overeating, and unsafe sex and higher rates of physical health problems and mortality. Individuals with these conditions also tend to miss more work or report being less productive," the report said. "These conditions can impair relationships, disrupt marriages, aggravate the difficulties of parenting, and cause problems in children that may extend the consequences of combat trauma across generations."

"These consequences can have a high economic toll," RAND said. "However, most attempts to measure the costs of these conditions focus only on medical costs to the government. Yet, direct costs of treatment are only a fraction of the total costs related to mental health and cognitive conditions. Far higher are the long-term individual and societal costs stemming from lost productivity, reduced quality of life, homelessness, domestic violence, the strain on families, and suicide. Delivering effective care and restoring veterans to full mental health have the potential to reduce these longer-term costs significantly."

Bush and Congress have the power to stop this problem before it gets worse. It's not too late to extend needed mental health care to our returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; it's not too late to begin properly screening and treating returning servicemen and women who've experienced a traumatic brain injury; and it is not too late to simplify the disability claims process so that wounded veterans do not die waiting for their check. As the Rand study shows, this isn't only in the best interest of veterans, it's in the best interest of our country in the long run.

To start with, the Bush Administration needs to give us some honest information about the true human costs of the Iraq War.

Aaron Glantz, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the author of two upcoming books on Iraq: The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (UC Press) and Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (Haymarket). He edits the website www.WarComesHome.org.

Soldier Suicides

Veterans are killing themselves in record numbers
But at the VA, not much has changed
By Beth Walton
May 14th 2008

Former Marine and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Schulze killed himself just days after he was told he was number 26 on the waiting list for the St. Cloud VA's PTSD program

Former Marine and Iraq war veteran Jonathan Schulze killed himself just days after he was told he was number 26 on the waiting list for the St. Cloud VA's PTSD program

Marine Bryan Benson of St. Paul shocked his family when he killed himself in 2005, just a year after his return from Iraq

David Fickel was never the same kid after he returned home. When his girlfriend moved out, he shot himself in the head.

On February 19th 2004, Private Jonathan Schulze's life changed forever. The stone-faced, blue-eyed Marine got word he was going to war in Iraq, an environment completely different from his previous cozy posts in Okinawa, Japan, and California.

Two months later, Schulze found himself in the midst of a bloody, two-day firefight in Ramadi. He watched a rocket-propelled grenade decapitate his best friend. There was no time to grieve, he told his family; he had to "bag and tag" bodies with the dead man's brains still smeared across his shirt. There were 16 U.S. fatalities that day.

Seven months later, after receiving a general discharge from the Marine Corps, Schulze returned to the family farm near Stewart, Minnesota, where he grew up. Although unusually quiet, his life seemed back on track; he worked construction with his father and fawned over his daughter, Kaley Marie.

In May 2005, Schulze suffered an on-the-job injury and turned to the Minneapolis Veterans Administration for treatment. For reasons unknown, his body was resisting antibiotics and he was continually developing infections.

But that wasn't all that was wrong. Jonathan told doctors that several times a day he experienced panic attacks. His heart would race, his chest would hurt, and he'd feel like he was being choked. He couldn't sleep at night and had developed a violent temper. One psychiatrist noted that Schulze said his "life was falling apart."

Jonathan was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a serious mental condition that can result in nightmares, panic attacks, and hyper vigilance.

By January of 2007, Schulze's binge drinking and violent outbursts had hurt his relationships with family and friends. He'd been convicted of driving drunk and was asked to leave an apartment he was renting.

Schulze hit bottom and realized that no amount of booze and anti-anxiety drugs would make the pains of the war fade. He inquired about residential PTSD programming at the Minneapolis VA and was told he had to wait until March.

So Schulze traveled with his father 75 miles to the St. Cloud VA. They had heard about its residential treatment program for PTSD and hoped Jonathan would be admitted on the spot.

At the hospital, Schulze told an intake nurse that he was suffering from severe PTSD and that he was suicidal, his parents say—a claim the VA denies. He was told to go home and wait for a phone call; the social worker who was supposed to conduct screenings was busy with another matter.The next day, Schulze was told that he had been admitted, but he shouldn't pack his bags just yet: He was 26th on the waiting list.

"He got off the phone and he looked at me and his face just fell," says his stepmother, Marianne.

Four days later, police found the 25-year-old motionless in a sitting position, semi-suspended from a blue electrical cord tied to a cross beam in his friend's basement. He had hung himself.

THE DEATH OF PRIVATE SCHULZE reverberated far beyond Minnesota. Charles M. Sennott of the Boston Globe declared Schulze a "searing symbol of a system that...is vastly unprepared and under funded to handle the onslaught of 1.5 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are returning home," and wrote that the "apparent failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer him timely and necessary care" raised questions as to "how a serviceman with such obvious symptoms faced a wait for hospital care. "

New York blogger Bob Geiger wrote a post on January 31, titled "Young Marine Dies of PTSD—and Neglect." Schulze, Geiger wrote, "died of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of wounds to the soul and not the flesh. He died because the government that was there to send him far away to fight in 2004 wasn't there for him when he got home."

The following month the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Military Deployment Services for Youth, Families, and Service Members reported that there were "significant barriers to receiving mental heath care in the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs system."

Today, as violence continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more and more troops return home from combat, the VA and Department of Defense have been unable to keep pace, says Dan Reidenberg, a doctor of clinical psychology and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, a Bloomington-based nonprofit. In February 2006, the national VA said it was expecting 2,900 new PTSD cases; the actual number was nearly six times that, with some 17,800 documented cases, according to a 2008 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America report.

Recent studies show one in five soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, Reidenberg says. With no draft in place and military recruitment numbers dwindling, the burden of this war has been put on a relatively fixed number of servicemen and women. Multiple tours of duty have put excessive stress on soldiers and their families. Homecoming often collides with failing personal relationships and legal, financial, or occupational problems, which can all contribute to higher levels of PTSD.

The nature of PTSD makes sufferers more likely to turn to suicide than people with other mental illnesses, Reidenberg adds. They can't escape what's going on in their minds and see suicide as the only way out.

Last year, 121 Army soldiers killed themselves, a 20 percent increase from 2006. Attempted suicides and self-inflicted injuries have increased by 400 percent in the five years since the start of the Iraq war, with 2,100 in 2007 compared to 500 in 2002. In Minnesota, there have been at least 13 active duty or discharged servicemen under age 30 who committed suicide since January 1, 2003.

"This is a huge problem," says Reidenberg. "It's bigger now than it has been in any other conflict the United States has been in."

MANY SERVICEMEN AND WOMEN with PTSD don't come forward because they're afraid the diagnosis will affect their military rank and future employment, says Sue Abderholden, associate director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Often they don't understand PTSD or know that help is available.

Marine Bryan Benson was one of them. After deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Benson came home and enrolled in courses at the University of Minnesota. But on April 27, 2005, he shocked his family by driving far away from his St. Paul home and shooting himself in the head. He was 24.

"If Bryan can commit suicide, it's really open season; it can happen to anybody," says his mother, Denise Hinton. "He's the last person anybody would have thought would die this way."

Benson couldn't wait to join the military; he signed his commitment papers even before his graduation from Como Senior High, where he was a member of the ROTC program.

Three years after Benson graduated, he found himself on a Marine ship patrolling the waters near Australia, the kind of comfortable military assignment that was to be expected in the pre-9/11 word. But when the Twin Towers came crashing down, Benson's unit was immediately sent to the Arabian Sea. One month later, he was deployed to Afghanistan, where he served for four months. In March of 2003, Benson was sent to Iraq.

While in Fallujah searching for a missing Marine, the then-22-year-old was ambushed by Iraqi gunmen. He was shot in the abdomen, escaping death only because the bullet hit the magazine of his M-16 rifle. Later, he was shot in the leg. He told his parents nothing more about the incidents, other than that he and other Marines "dispatched" their assailants.

A natural-born leader, Benson returned from combat in 2004 with the ambition to move up the military ranks. He was admitted to the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, which would allow him to transition from sergeant to officer. To gain entrance to the program, Benson had to pass several psychological tests and interviews with panels of high-ranking military officials.

"Nobody caught anything unusual," his mother says.

Hinton noticed her son was different after the war, a little jaded, perhaps, but nothing unexpected for someone who'd experienced combat at such a young age. She wasn't that surprised when her son told her he wanted to get a gun; he no longer felt safe in the middle-class St. Paul neighborhood where he grew up.

"When you experience war, nothing is ever going to be the same again," says Matt Hinton, Benson's stepfather. "For the rest of your life you are going to experience everything from a different perspective."

This is especially true with the current wars, says Reidenberg. Because there are no front lines, soldiers have to always be on guard. Many of them, like Benson, bring that mentality home.

"The Iraq war is a very different kind of war," Reidenberg says. "If you turn the wrong way, make the wrong step, it could be lethal."

The Hintons thought Benson's struggles would fade as he spent time at home. It wasn't until after his death that they realized the full extent of his psychological pain.

"I just thought we'd have to love him up and get the sparkle back in his eyes," says Denise Hinton. "But we were wrong, love wasn't enough."

MARINE DAVID FICKEL WAS too tough to ask for help, but not too tough to admit pain. When he came back to Litchfield in 2003 after tours in Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, he couldn't shake the memories of sick and maimed children he'd seen overseas. He confessed to family members that his unit had fired on civilians, a fact that constantly troubled him, says his mom, Robin Aanden.

"He had changed from being a happy, fun-loving, really outgoing person into being more quiet and thoughtful," Aanden adds. "He was very angry, a clean freak, uptight. He was not the same kid."

When Aanden suggested counseling, Fickel got defensive. He said he was a Marine and could handle it. "It was like he felt he needed to prove a point that he wasn't going to buckle under anything," Aanden says. "He didn't want to feel like he was beaten by his ghosts, his past. He really wanted to prove it, to us and to himself, that he could do it."

Fickel's solution to his anguish was to have a family of his own. At 25, he thought it would give him hope; he loved kids and hoped fatherhood would distract him from the nightmares and guilt.

But when Fickel and his girlfriend broke up in 2006, he just sort of gave up. Fickel had been through breakups before, but the stakes were higher this time, his mother remembers.

That weekend, Fickel canceled plans to march in the Memorial Day parade. Instead, he hosted a get-together at his apartment the same day his former girlfriend planned to move her stuff out. "He wanted to show her what she was missing," his mother says.

By the time everyone arrived, Fickel was drunk and out of control. He'd finished all the beer in the apartment and started guzzling rubbing alcohol. He was "nuts that day," his mother says. One minute he would act as if nothing was wrong, the next he was retching and sobbing.

When his ex-girlfriend finished packing her stuff and the truck pulled away from the driveway, it was as if he couldn't take it anymore, Aanden recalls.

"He looked me in the eye, blew me a kiss, and went back inside the house. We heard a loud noise and I thought it was a door slamming," she remembers. "I thought, 'Oh, someone is pissed off,' but he had shot himself in the head."

DESPITE THE INFLUX OF VETERANS from two new wars, the number of beds dedicated to treating combat PTSD at the St. Cloud VA had not been increased since 1995, according to an inspector general's report on Schulze's death. In the wake of the suicide, the St. Cloud VA doubled the number of psychologists providing mental health care for veterans, including the hiring of suicide prevention coordinators, a national mandate for all VA centers.

Locally, "not much has changed," says Joan Vincent, spokeswoman for the hospital, who canceled a scheduled interview with City Pages, citing ongoing litigation. She later clarified her statement, saying it was taken out of context. "Not much has changed in regards to PTSD treatment," she explained over the phone. Vincent later reiterated that the report investigating Schulze's death speaks for itself and that the VA was following appropriate protocol for PTSD programming at the time of Schulze's death. "We were doing a good job then and we're doing a good job now," she said.

During the 24 hours surrounding Schulze's visit to the VA on January 11, 2007, six beds were available in the acute psychiatry unit, a 15-bed wing at the hospital for patients who pose a risk to themselves or others. At the time, VA staffers failed to assess Schulze as suicidal, so he was put on a waiting list for elective PTSD treatment.

"They go into the military and they're promised that help will be there when they get out, but it's not," says Marianne Schulze, who thinks if her stepson was admitted that day he would be alive to tell his own story.

The Schulzes are now participating in a class-action lawsuit against the United States VA. Two groups—Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth—are accusing the VA of neglecting the psychological consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Schulze is one of several deceased veterans named in the suit, which was filed in San Francisco in July.

"The military is willing to send us off to combat at the drop of a hat, but then you come back and it's like, "Get in line, take a number", says Travis Schulze, Jonathan's brother and a veteran of the Afghanistan war. Travis is currently receiving therapeutic care at the Minneapolis VA, but says he's a "special case" and doubts treatment would be as accessible if he weren't Jonathan's brother. "What if there is no time left to take a number? What if you can't wait?"

120 US war veteran suicides a week

November 14th 2007

The US military is experiencing a "suicide epidemic" with veterans killing themselves at the rate of 120 a week.

At least 6256 US veterans committed suicide in 2005 - an average of 17 a day - the network reported, with veterans overall more than twice as likely to take their own lives as the rest of the general population.

While the suicide rate among the general population was 8.9 per 100,000, the level among veterans was between 18.7 and 20.8 per 100,000. That figure rose to 22.9 to 31.9 suicides per 100,000 among veterans aged 20 to 24 - almost four times the non-veteran average for the age group.

"Those numbers clearly show an epidemic of mental health problems," CBS quoted veterans' rights advocate Paul Sullivan as saying.

CBS quoted the father of a 23-year-old soldier who shot himself in 2005 as saying the military did not want the true scale of the problem to be known.

"Nobody wants to tally it up in the form of a government total," Mike Bowman said.
"They don't want the true numbers of casualties to really be known."

There are 25 million veterans in the United States, 1.6 million of whom served in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to CBS.

"Not everyone comes home from the war wounded, but the bottom line is nobody comes home unchanged," Paul Rieckhoff, a former Marine and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America said on CBS.

The network said it was the first time that a nationwide count of veteran suicides had been conducted.

The tally was reached by collating suicide data from individual states for both veterans and the general population from 1995
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