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Four Suicides in a Week Stun Fort Hood, But Fit Growing Trend

by Ann Gerhart

Fort Hood's leaders have tried nearly everything to stop the suicides. There are support groups and hotlines, counseling sessions and Reiki healing therapies, and strict assessment guidelines for commanders.

But the soldiers keep killing themselves. This past weekend, four more were dead at the Texas post, all of them decorated veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, three of them officers, two of them fathers of young children.

All four appear to have shot themselves, according to preliminary reports gathered for the Army's Suicide Prevention Task Force. Their deaths, which did not appear to be related, came within a few days of a visit from the Army's vice chief of staff, who reiterated his urgent plea for hurting soldiers to seek help.

"Every one of these is tragic," said Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, who commands Fort Hood, the nation's largest Army post. "It's personally and professionally frustrating as a leader."

"It came out of nowhere," said Spec. Dana Blomquist, 23, whose former squad leader, Sgt. Timothy Ryan Rinella, 29, was found dead in nearby Copperas Cove, Tex., on Saturday. "He always had a smile on his face. He cared for so much for his soldiers and people that weren't even his soldiers. There are so many people who are feeling guilty, but he never really showed any of the normal signs of people needing help."

So far, 104 Army troops have killed themselves this year, a rate that eclipses the one in the civilian world. The rate at Fort Hood, where 14 suicides already are confirmed this year and six other deaths are under investigation, is nearly four times that of the civilian population.

Grimsley said he saw no indication that the increase in suicides is related to November's mass shooting, when an Army psychiatrist allegedly opened fire inside the post and killed 13 people.

A thick Army report on the crisis two months ago points to several causes, including troops being so busy fighting two wars in 10 years that they don't take time to focus on their mental health and a rise in crime and substance abuse. The Army has concerns that the force is becoming "increasingly dependent on both legal and illegal drugs," according to the report.

Soldiers "tell us again and again we are failing," the chief of psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center said at a military medicine symposium last week. They fear losing their security clearance and losing promotions if they seek help, said Col. John Bradley, and they don't have confidence that the military can provide the necessary care.

"They don't trust us. They believe we speak with forked tongues," added retired Col. Charles Hoge, a former psychiatrist at Walter Reed, who was also at the symposium.

At the same time, in what the Army has begun to call "an era of persistent conflict," soldiers are increasingly culturally, socially and physically isolated from the rest of the country, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a blunt speech Wednesday at Duke University. Such a small fraction of the nation's 350 million people serves in the all-volunteer force that the divide between military and civilian life is widening.

"Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans, the war remains an abstraction - a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally," Gates said.

All of these factors are on full display in the Texas town just outside sprawling Fort Hood. Killeen is an Army company town, and its crime rate rises when the brigades come home, with more arrests for domestic violence, assault, and drunk and disorderly conduct. The skills that keep soldiers alive in war make them dysfunctional in civil society. So the suicides are no longer shocking.

But the quartet in one weekend rocked Fort Hood.

The first, found Friday in Temple, Tex., was Pvt. Antonio Heath, 24, an ammunition stock-control specialist from Warren, N.Y., stationed in Iraq for most of last year.

On Saturday, Master Sgt. Baldemar Gonzales, 39, was found dead in his house on post. He had fought in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and was deployed to Iraq again from the spring of 2008 to 2009. Married and a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, he was the senior noncommissioned officer for a brigade combat team detachment until the summer of 2009. Since September, he had been assigned to the Warrior Transition Team at the post's medical center, where injured and ill soldiers get care until they return to duty.

Rinella, a father of four, was found next.

Then, on Sunday, there were gunshots at one of the developments for families on Fort Hood. Authorities discovered Sgt. Michael Timothy Franklin, 31, and his wife, Jesse Ann, both dead from gunshots. Army investigators said they think Franklin killed his wife, his college girlfriend, then turned the gun on himself.

He had wanted to be an elementary school teacher, a college friend told his hometown newspaper in Middletown, R.I. , but joined the Army in 1997 after he struggled to find work. He told friends that his two tours in Iraq were "crazy," and said his life was like the movie "Stop-Loss," where the soldiers keep getting shipped back just as their time is about to run out.

Rinella missed the birth of his first son when he was in Iraq, and he missed the birth of his second in 2004 because his flight home was 20 minutes late. He was stoical at the time.

"I made the choice to join the military," he told the Associated Press, "and I knew I was going to miss some things."

Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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