Iraq Troops Suicide Rate Spikes

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The Army's suicide rate in Iraq has been about a third higher than past rates for troops during peacetime, the Pentagon's top doctor said Wednesday.

Also, the military still has about 2,500 troops waiting for medical care after returning from overseas, said Dr. William Winkenwerder, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

The Pentagon is preparing for even more soldiers on "medical extension" after tens of thousands of troops are rotated home from Iraq this spring, Winkenwerder said.

The issue of suicides so worried the military that the Army sent an assessment team to Iraq late last year to see if anything more could be done to prevent troops from killing themselves. The Army also began offering more counseling to returning troops after several soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., killed their wives and themselves after returning home from the war.

Winkenwerder said the military has documented 21 suicides during 2003 among troops involved in the Iraq war. Eighteen of those were Army soldiers, Winkenwerder said.

That's a suicide rate for soldiers in Iraq of about 13.5 per 100,000, Winkenwerder said. During recent peacetime years, that number for the Army has hovered around 10.5 to 11 per 100,000, Winkenwerder said.

"We don't see any trend there that tells us that there's more we might be doing," Winkenwerder told a breakfast meeting of Pentagon reporters.

The military has nine combat stress teams in Iraq to help treat troops' mental health problems, and each division has a psychiatrist, psychologist and social worker, Winkenwerder said. He said between 300 and 400 troops have been medically evacuated from Iraq for mental health problems.

The military prefers to treat mental health problems such as depression by keeping troops in their regular duties while they get counseling and possibly medication, Winkenwerder said. Less than one percent of the troops in Iraq are treated for mental issues during an average week, he said.

Winkenwerder said he had no specifics on the number of troops being treated for battlefield stress, although the military is focused on treating that problem.

"We believe they are being identified, they are being supported," Winkenwerder said.

The military also is working to solve the issue of soldiers awaiting medical care. Since November, about 1,900 of the 4,400 troops waiting for medical care have been treated, Winkenwerder said.

But the military expects more problems when tens of thousands of troops are rotated in and out of Iraq this spring, Winkenwerder said. Many of those troops may have to wait at various bases for medical treatment such as physical therapy for injuries, he said.

The Army is working to sign contracts with civilian medical providers and bringing in more staff from the Navy, Air Force and Department of Veterans Affairs to help, Winkenwerder said.

According to Pentagon statistics, from 1980 to 2002 4,969 U.S. servicemembers killed themselves.

As a cause of death for military personnel, suicide ranked behind accidents (20,609 from 1980 to 2002) and illness (6,436 from 1980 to 2002).

But there were more suicides than deaths from hostile action, terrorist attack, homicide or undetermined causes put together over the 22-year period.

From 1980 to 2003, the overall military suicide rate ranged from a high of 15 per 100,000 in 1995 to a low of 7.7 per 100,000 in 2002.

That compares to an overall U.S. suicide rate of 10.8 per 100,000 in 2001, according to the National Center for Vital Statistics.