Suicides among serving American soldiers reached a record high last year, as more troops were sent back for multiple tours of the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.The US Army saw suicides among active duty troops leap 20 per cent from 2006, with 121 soldiers taking their own lives during 2007. The increase in attempted suicides and self-inflicted injuries was higher still, jumping six-fold since the war in Iraq began in 2003.
The army suicide rate now stands at twice that of 1980, when records began, and for the first time in American military history more soldiers are killing themselves in wartime than in peace.
The findings are contained in an internal military report that concludes that the army was utterly unprepared for the psychological fall-out from fighting two parallel and demanding insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Both conflicts have continued far longer and at a far higher intensity than was planned for, with many troops now returning for their third or fourth deployment in six years or less, as an overstretched military struggles to staff its battlefields.
A typical deployment for American troops lasts from 12 to 18 months, compared with 4 to 6 months for their British counterparts. The study found that the frequency and length of the deployments were a key factor behind soldier suicides, both for the stress they placed on the individual in the combat zone and the strain that long separations caused on family and spousal relationships.
Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, the army's top psychiatrist and the author of the report, saod that the trend would continue upwards unless there was a serious rethink of a mental-health programme that was not designed to cope with the demands of the current conflicts - or indeed, any conflict at all.
"The current Army Suicide Prevention Program was not originally designed for a combat/deployment environment," she wrote, adding that six years after the conflict in Afghanistan began, the army had still to learn how to assess, monitor and treat soldiers in psychological distress. Over the past year, it has worked to reform many aspects of its mental health provisions, from psychiatric screenings to resilience training, but has failed to turn the tide of self-harm.
The suicide crisis was brought into focus dramatically with the attempted suicide on Monday evening of Lieutenant Elizabeth Whiteside, who was taken to Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Centre after suffering a nervous breakdown in Iraq last year. Ms Whiteside had snapped, pointed a gun at a superior, fired two shots into the ceiling then turned the gun on herself, damaging several of her organs.
She was in hospital awaiting a decision on whether to court-martial her when she took an overdose of pills, apparently in protest at mental health care provision. "I'm very disappointed with the Army," she wrote in a suicide note. "Hopefully this will help other soldiers." She was revived and remains in a stable condition. The charges against her have since been dropped.
Critics say that the new report highlights not merely the need for more reform, but raises fundamental questions over whether the US Army, with only 500,000 active duty members, can continue to cope with the levels of its commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report comes only days after the Administration announced plans to deploy an additional 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan, in an attempt to replicate the success of the "surge" in Baghdad.
Others warn that the public health care system faces being swamped by a returning generation of traumatised veterans. Some troop surveys in Iraq have shown 20 per cent of soldiers - a record level -suffering from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Most combat-induced psychiatric disorders, however, do not manifest fully until later, as evidenced by the latest report, which showed that two-thirds of suicides took place in the US after soldiers had returned home.
© 2008 The Times Online