Acts of war…and suicide

From the Chicago Tribune last week (March 3, 2008):

Army struggles with rising suicide

A soldier’s tale illustrates the prevention battle inside the service as 2007 set a new high for troops taking their own lives

Last year, 121 soldiers in the Army and active-duty National Guard and Reserves committed suicide, the largest number since the military began keeping records in 1980.

That is more than double the 52 suicides reported in 2001, the year the war in Afghanistan began, according to a recent Pentagon report. The report also cited 2,100 attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries last year — six times the 350 reported in 2002, prior to the start of the Iraq war…

The numbers are rising despite efforts by the military to beef up its mental-health programs. Faced with growing scrutiny over those programs in Congress and the news media, the Army has sought to improve services for soldiers, spending more than $1 million last year on additional counselors, training and screening, Army officials said.

Every time a new generation experiences war it seems to react as if their war is worse than anything mankind has ever known. Individuals on both the front lines and stateside weigh it, measure it, and find out instead that war is just as William Tecumseh Sherman said it was in 1879 – “hell.”

A hundred years later, Richard Holmes’ book “Acts of War – The Behavior of Men in Battle” was published (1985). When I read the book in 1987 I was shocked to learn that psychological casualties during World War II exceeded as a percentage those of the Vietnam War.

Like all Americans, I had just lived through a dozen years of news items featuring the latest case of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder patient whose suffering was the result of time spent in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

According to Holmes,

“The incidence of psychiatric casualties is influenced by a wide range of factors, such as the adequacy of selection processes before enlistment, the intensity of battle, the time spent in combat by a unit or individual, the non-battle elements of stress such as terrain and climate, the general attitude to fear and breakdown, and the state of morale.

During the second World War Allied troops sustained psychiatric casualties at a rate which varied between 8 per cent of all battle casualties – in the British 2nd Army in April-May 1945 – and 54 percent – in the U.S. 2nd Armored Division in forty-four days of sustained operations in Italy in 1944.”

Holmes writes:

“At one point in early 1943 psychiatric casualties were being discharged from the service faster than new recruits were being drafted in.”

Vietnam, by comparison, psychiatric casualties totaled five percent of evacuations. Holmes explains that the high level of American psychiatric breakdowns during World War II were caused by –

“…the American system of combat replacement. Divisions were kept in the line indefinitely, and replacements were posted in as they need arose.”

Today’s extended tours, no doubt, are contributing factors to the rise in the suicide rate. But no one should think today’s soldier has it any tougher than those who served in years past.