The Start of the Suicide Story

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Army photo / Spc. Sergio Rangel

U.S. Army troops from the 10th Mountain Division in northern Iraq in May, 2003, just as the Army's suicide rate began climbing.

It was nine years ago — Columbus Day, 2003 — that the first significant story on the suicides of the post-9/11 wars appeared above the fold in USA Today. Reporter Gregg Zoroya had called me that summer, when I was doing a fellowship at the Uniformed Services University at the Health Sciences. He asked about five suicides in Iraq over the summer and fall of 2003, a few months after we invaded.

I couldn’t answer his question about how unusual the suicide spate was, since I was relatively isolated in the schoolhouse atmosphere. As it turned out, the Army had not really been tracking the cluster, either.

I did give him a quote (after getting clearance from the local Army public-affairs officer): “It just takes a second to pull it out and put it to your head and pull the trigger.” It was amazing to see the quote ricochet around the world, appearing in languages ranging from Arabic to Chinese.

Although the subsequent Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT) was not sparked by the USA Today story, the publicity it caused certainly spurred that deployment of mental-health professionals to Iraq to try to figure out what was going on.

It was the beginning of a public focus on military suicides, the resulting Mental Health Advisory Teams, the growing cases of mental ailments wrought by 11 years of war, and the valiant but still-fruitless effort to curb the suicide epidemic.

Mental Health Advisory Teams have surveyed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan periodically since then. They have been critically important efforts seeking information of troops’ anxiety and depression, the challenges of seeking care — including too much stigma, and not enough clinicians – the effects of leadership on morale and cohesion, and trying to scope out the suicide problem.

In 2003 and 2004, we thought the suicides were part of the normal variability of suicide rates. By 2005 I was very concerned, as we began to look closely at suicide clusters at Fort Riley, Kansas, Fort Hood, Texas and other posts. Others suggested the spike in suicides was a blip, and that soldier suicide rates would soon return to their historic level of between 10 and 12 such deaths per year for every 100,000 men and women in uniform.

But the suicide rates continued to rise. I joined a small mental-health team that traveled to Iraq in 2007 to try to figure out why. But despite our efforts, the numbers have kept climbing, especially in the Guard and Reserve. Now, despite Army and Pentagon task forces, there is literally one suicide a day.

I won’t focus on the possible reasons here; they can be read about here, or in earlier Battleland posts here and here.

This past weekend, there has been another conference of suicide survivors in San Diego. Such gatherings are important. The impact on the families of those who kill themselves is immense, and often persists. It is good to see them taking the initiative to grapple with its challenges.

Hard to believe it was nearly a decade ago that Gregg Zoroya called to ask me about suicide. I only wish the resulting USA Today article had marked the end of the story, instead of its start.