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April 02, 2010

Suicides at Fort Hood

Of all the troubling signs of stress on the force is the epidemic of suicides plaguing the Army. The Army ratios are above the national average and in some months recently, there have been more suicides in the Army than combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There is no pattern to suicides. One third who commit suicide have never served in combat; another third commit suicide while in combat; and yet another third do it once they return, according to Army statistics. My friend Sig Christenson had an interesting piece on how this problem is shaping out at Fort Hood, one of the Army’s largest bases. There, the numbers are rising quickly. Here is the full story:

Fort Hood suicides are rising
By Sig Christenson
Fort Hood has had at least nine questionable deaths among young soldiers in the first three months of 2010, more than half of them confirmed suicides, despite Army efforts to reverse a trend linked to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The San Antonio Express-News found five Fort Hood soldiers died under unknown circumstances in March. Two were confirmed as suicides.

The deaths of five GIs assigned to the post this year have been confirmed as suicides, with another suspected of killing himself.

That's about half the number for all of 2009, when 11 GIs committed suicide.

Four other deaths this year are unresolved.

Fort Hood, the biggest post in the Army as the year began with 46,500 troops, had a suicide rate of 26 per 100,000 people from 2006 to 2008, far above the civilian rate of 14.06 per 100,000.

Fort Hood had more troops, 53,750, before the 4th Infantry Division relocated to Fort Carson, Colo., last summer.

Neither the Army nor Fort Hood gave information about this year's cases, but as the week began, commanders at the Central Texas post asked the suicide support coordinator for the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors to address soldiers there next week.

“I think they're worried about their recent numbers and they're worried about it getting out of control, and they're trying to quickly put a lid on it,” said Kim Ruocco, whose husband, a Marine Super Cobra gunship pilot, killed himself in 2005. “And I think they're trying to do a lot of things to bring experts and resources in to stop the pace that it's at.”

The Army set a record for suicides last year, with 160 possible cases among active-duty GIs, 140 of which were confirmed. Eighty-two cases were logged for reservists, with 74 confirmed suicides, as the Army did the bulk of the fighting overseas.

The Army wouldn't provide an official tally through the end of March. An Army spokesman, George Wright, said a new suicide report with updated figures will be released next Thursday.

Just this week, the Army said it has 263,300 GIs posted in nearly 80 countries, and noted that those numbers have been higher in past years. An Army chart shows 623,326 soldiers have deployed once since 9-11. Another 278,138 have gone twice and 94,516 have pulled three tours.

Pentagon officials, most notably Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, think the high pace of Army operations is driving the suicide spike.

Some soldiers have spent three to four of the past eight years at war, serving up to 15 months. Suicides among active-duty GIs have increased each year since the invasion of Iraq, from 79 in 2003 to 140 in 2008.

Soldiers get at least 12 months of “dwell time” at home, but the Army's chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, told the Express-News that the service now averages 15 to 18 months' dwell time, he said.

Casey cited relationships; money and work problems; and drug and alcohol abuse as major factors in many suicides. But he conceded frequent deployments clearly were a factor in the rising number of suicides — the bulk of them occurring at Fort Hood and other posts that have played key roles in the war on terrorism.

“As I look at it, it has to add stress. But if you look at where people commit suicide, a third (kill themselves) in theater, a third have never gone and another third have been and it happens after they come back. And so, like I said, I can't imagine it doesn't add stress,” Casey said.

The Express-News found all of the possible Fort Hood suicide victims were enlisted men from 21 to 31. Eight were privates or specialists; the other was a sergeant.

In 2009, 46 specialists throughout the Army committed suicide along with 43 soldiers who held one of three private ranks. Another 27 were sergeants. Higher-ranking NCOs, officers and a cadet rounded out last year's suicides.

Fort Hood's dead for this year include:

• Pfc. Donnell C. Harris, 23, of Linden, Mass., died March 27 in Killeen of a gunshot wound. The Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas ruled his death a suicide.

• Pvt. Curtis Zachary Shinneman, 23, of Hobart, Ind., an Iraq veteran, died March 20 in a Killeen apartment of a gunshot wound to the head. The Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas ruled his death a suicide.

• Pfc. Reid Taylor Little, 21, of Scottsdale, Ariz., died Jan. 10 of a gunshot wound. The Maricopa County medical examiner ruled the Iraq veteran's death a suicide.

• Spc. John Carl Lawson, 31, of Phoenix, an Iraq veteran, died Feb. 9 in Copperas Cove of a gunshot wound to the mouth. Justice of the Peace John Guinn of Copperas Cove ruled the case a suicide after receiving a medical examiner's report.

• Spc. Jonathan L. Hughey, 24, of Phoenix. A veteran of Afghanistan, he died Jan. 1 at his mother's home in Phoenix of a gunshot wound. The Maricopa County medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.

The causes of death of four soldiers have not been confirmed:

• Spc. Ryan A. Hill, 29, of Garland died March 25 after being found unresponsive at his home. A veteran of Iraq, he was taken to a Fort Hood hospital. Results of an autopsy conducted by the Army haven't been released.

• Sgt. Irvin Albert Mitchell Jr., 25, of Picayune, Miss., died March 16 in Mandeville, La. He served in Iraq for a year. The St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office has issued no ruling pending the return of toxicology tests.

• Spc. Erik Georgevega, 30, of Austin died March 14 in San Antonio. A San Antonio police report stated the Iraq veteran was found dead in his bed, his mouth foaming. The Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office hasn't ruled in the case, pending toxicology results.

• Pvt. Richard Houston Jr., 22, of Detroit, died Jan. 4 in Killeen. A news report cited police as saying he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Killeen police have refused to release incident reports in suicide cases, and it's unclear if a ruling was issued in his death or who made it.

Alarmed by the steady rise in suicides, the Army has launched a five-year joint research project with the National Institute of Mental Health. It also has established “Battlemind,” a computer and classroom program that helps soldiers and families deal with the stress of war.

Casey said he was disappointed by the suicide spike, but he said it is difficult for anyone to know if a soldier is a suicide risk.

“The challenge is really, how you get inside someone's head?” he said. “And how do you know whether someone is having a problem or if someone who is ready to take their own life?”

Retired Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay, who studied war stress on former troops for more than 20 years, said the wear and tear of two long conflicts on a force too small to fight both at once is taking its toll.

“I know that people get worn down and worn out, and injury is cumulative,” said Shay, author of “Odysseus in America: Combat, Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming,” a book on Vietnam War veterans. “It may be a repetitive-motion injury of the soul.”

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Comments

Randhir Sookdeo

I think it was in bad taste to list the names of the soldiers. The conditions and stresses under which those who choose to serve their country, operate under is unknown to most. They should be given the utmost respect at all times.

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

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