Coverage Mixed on Soldiers’ Suicides

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By: Wayne Smith

After months of reschedules and false starts, the Pentagon press corps finally got a look at the Army’s long awaited report on troop suicides in Iraq. The report, dated Dec. 16, 2003, was scheduled for release a half dozen times by the Army public affairs office but it kept getting postponed, apparently at the behest of those higher on the Defense Department food chain.

It is a chilling document, the product of a 12-member mental health advisory team dispatched to Iraq late last summer following a spike in soldier suicides. Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) commander General Ricardo Sanchez was so concerned that he requested help from the Army Surgeon General’s office and the team was dispatched almost immediately. While the report has gained wide attention by the press, some of that coverage has been incomplete or misleading.

At this week’s briefing, the actual number of suicides was again updated, to 24 soldiers having killed themselves in Iraq since the beginning of OIF. Three cases that look like suicide are being investigated. An additional seven soldiers, at least, have killed themselves after returning home but they were not mentioned in the report or in much of the media coverage. Nor are they included in the army’s calculated suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers — higher than the army’s overall rate of 11.9 from 1995 to 2002.

Reporters were given a handout that suggested that the current rate among soldiers in Iraq isn’t worrying when you compare it to the civilian rate for 18- to 34 year-olds, the age range of many soldiers. That rate is 21 per 100,000. But this comparison is highly misleading, given that the Army is supposed to have screened out any people who may have underlying psychiatric problems, including depression and alcoholism, that can lead to suicide. The Chicago Tribune, which in a past story on this subject, went outside the military loop to speak to independent suicide experts, didn’t print the army’s flawed logic today, but other reporters did, confusing the issue.

But the real story, the one that moves this issue into the miscalculations-of-this-war file is the shockingly low troop morale discovered by the team. Fifty-two percent of the soldiers who were surveyed last summer reported low or very low personal morale, and 72% reported low or very low unit morale. It cited the usual stressors of war, seeing dead bodies or human remains, being attacked or ambushed and personally knowing someone who was seriously injured or killed. This kind of stress is predictable and unfortunately a natural by-product of military conflict.

What was disturbing was the rest of the list of stressing factors, which included among other things, uncertain redeployment dates and length of deployment. In other words, morale began to plummet when the soldiers, unlike their Commander in Chief, figured out that their mission wasn’t accomplished and that no one seemed to have any idea at all when it would be.

The report indicates that the army and its well-meaning mental health professionals weren’t prepared for the nature and length of the conflict, saying “soldiers reported barriers to getting help in theatre and the inconsistent quality of care for soldiers evacuated out of theatre.” In other words, when the mental health crisis struck last summer, the army was ill prepared, but not a single reporter in the briefing room asked why.

Army spokespeople tried to play down the morale problem by referring to the unrelenting heat of last summer, and there is no doubt that it was miserable for OIF soldiers sleeping in tents and other makeshift quarters without air conditioning, suggesting that perhaps improvement in troops’ living conditions might raise their morale. And possibly it already has. But a survey conducted late last summer and published last fall by the Pentagon-funded newspaper Stars and Stripes indicates that there’s a possibility that as long as troops are in Iraq, morale may be a problem. The newspaper cited growing concerns by soldiers about the legitimacy of their mission as one of the reasons they were feeling so bad.

The army’s report exposes the morale problem but doesn’t connect the dots to the suicides. As The New York Times put it this morning, “senior Army medical officers said they had found no connection between the suicides and the morale factors.”

But one wonders, if morale is not a harbinger of psychiatric and re-adjustment problems in troops, why on earth did the Mental Health Advisory Team bother doing the survey on it?

If the army won’t do it then it’s up to the media to connect the dots on the OIF suicides. The picture that is emerging indicates that some OIF soldiers are suffering and that their suffering is a result of miscalculations made by war planners.

Also see previous columns on this topic (for subscribers only):

No Surprise That Media Briefing on Iraq Costs Was Cancelled

Suicides Among Soldiers Who Served in Iraq

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