Published on Monday, March 29, 2004 by Newsday / Long Island, New York
The Casualties of Iraq Include GI Suicides
by Sheryl McCarthy
I can think of lots of ways that the war in Iraq has taken a toll on American soldiers: Being blown up by a bomb, for one, or getting picked off by a sniper or a mortar shell during an ambush, for another.
We've heard plenty of stories about soldiers who joined the military in pursuit of money for college or to learn a trade, but who are now learning to navigate the world with their arms and legs missing.
Now we can add yet another toll of this war: suicide.
According to figures compiled by the Army, 23 soldiers committed suicide while serving in Iraq and Kuwait last year - a higher rate than for the Army as a whole, though lower than for civilians who are in the same age group.
On average, two soldiers in the war zone committed suicide each month in 2003, according to an Army report released last week. The number jumped to five in July, though the Army is unable to explain why. Another suicide this year, plus seven by soldiers who've returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom, drives the suicide deaths even higher.
It's terrible enough watching the overall carnage of this war mount - about 600 troops had perished as of last week, according to newspaper reports. But who had even thought about suicides?
Then, again, why wouldn't there be suicides in a war? Soldiers face the usual array of human problems - marital and relationship problems, financial problems, difficulties in adjusting - along with the constant threat of being killed or maimed, and with no set timetable for being pulled out of Iraq. That some are killing themselves should come as no surprise.
According to the Army report, the suicide rate in Iraq and Kuwait last year was 17.3 soldiers per every 100,000, which was higher than the suicide rate for U.S. military personnel in Vietnam. In a survey of 756 soldiers, 52 percent described their morale as low or very low, while 72 percent said morale was that bad for their entire unit.
The Army can't explain why five soldiers took their own lives last July, but let's see what was happening over there at the time. The average daily temperature in Baghdad was 110 degrees. And in that city alone, U.S. military officials estimated that during the first week or so, their troops were attacked more than a dozen times a day. On July 3, a U.S. base near Balad came under mortar fire that wounded 17 soldiers, an American soldier was shot dead in Baghdad, and the following day 50 Iraqis tried to ambush a patrol near Balad.
That's enough tension to push someone who's already depressed, stressed-out and emotionally fragile over the edge.
The Army's report points to a number of weaknesses in the mental health care it offers its soldiers. It clearly needs to provide more mental health care providers, position them closer to the units and aggressively encourage troubled soldiers to ask for help. Limiting each soldier's period of deployment to a definite term might also help. In Vietnam, at least they knew they were there for only a year. With this war, it's anybody's guess.
At a hearing conducted by the federal commission that's investigating the events leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, people were asking if the Bush administration was so preoccupied with ousting Saddam Hussein that it ignored warnings about the bigger threat from al-Qaida. The hearing presented even more evidence that there was no compelling national security reason for us to invade Iraq. Meanwhile, the toll that this war has taken on our soldiers mounts.
Nearly 600 deaths is bad enough. To learn that 23 of them were suicides is very sad.
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