UPDATED: Why Isn't the Press on a Suicide Watch?

By: Greg Mitchell Would it surprise you to learn that according to official Pentagon figures, at least 118 U.S. military personnel in Iraq have committed suicide since April 2003? That number does not include many unconfirmed reports, or those who served in the war and then killed themselves at home (a sizable, if uncharted, number).

While troops who have died in "hostile action" -- and those gravely injured and rehabbing at Walter Reed and other hospitals -- have gained much wider media attention in recent years, the suicides (about 3% of our overall Iraq death toll) remain in the shadows.

For whatever reason, I have always found soldiers who take their own lives especially tragic, though some might argue the opposite. Since the beginning of the war, I have written numerous columns on self-inflicted deaths, from average grunts to Col. Ted Westhusing (angry about contractor abuses), Alyssa Peterson (appalled by interrogation techniques) and Linda Michel (denied medication after returning home). But generally, the suicides get very little local or national attention.

In a sense, the press doesn't know what to do about them. Did they serve their country well, but ultimately let it down? Or is their country fully responsible for putting them in a suicide-producing situation in the first place and has blood on its hands?

One recent case illustrates some of the issues. The Pentagon revealed the death, joining more than 3,650 others, on July 5 in one of its pithy releases: "Pfc. Andrew T. Engstrom, 22, of Slaton, Texas, died July 4 in Taji, Iraq, from injuries suffered in a non-combat related incident. His death is under investigation."

Investigations can last months, and the press normally reports "that the death was 'non-hostile,' which also covers the many killed in vehicle or gun accidents, and leaves it at tht. But in this case, a reporter for The Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal, Marlena Hartz, wrote that she had learned from one of Engstrom's friends and a family friend that his parents had been told he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound "in the head."

A local radio station published a couple of heartbreaking photos of the young man on its Web site, captured from MySpace, along with a message his mother had posted online before his death: "My dearest son, you should know how much daddy and I are so proud of you, taking the stand like you did, when you did, living out what you dreamed of doing since you were a young child. Keep your chin up, your head down, and remember dad and I love you with our whole being. Mom."

I found his page at MySpace (he called himself Sir Knight). The "last log-in" came on the day he died. His lead quote reads: "These are the times that try men's souls." Biographical details included the statement "I don't have heroes." The top entry in the comments section by his MySpace friends came from a young woman who wrote on July 13: "R.I.P. Andy." His younger brother, 18, and his mother each have their own MySpace pages which now include tributes. His mother described her "mood" in July as "depressed."

Like I said: I can barely stand the tragedy in all of this.

His mother, however, contests the suicide claim, asserting that the newspaper's sources "jumped to conclusions." She says that the pathology report states that his death was only of "suspicious nature" and that the mililtary has said its investigation may never come to a clear understanding.

On August 5, in response to an earlier piece on this subject, I received the following email: "My 26 yr old son hung himself June 21st. He was an 'outstanding' SSG with 'great leadership skills' per his Army records. Something is very wrong with the services that they receive. He had been stationed at Fort Carson. Disch on May 2 with PTSD 50% disability and dead less than 6 weeks later, I am trying so hard to make sense of this tragedy."

This past January, Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman noted in The Hartford Courant that veterans advocates found the increase of suicides in 2006 "troubling." Steve Robinson, director of government relations for Veterans for America, told them he was particularly disturbed by suicides in the war zone because combat troops are supposed to be screened for mental health issues before they join the military, and throughout their careers. "These people aren't the kind of people that you would think would take this step," he said.

Chekedel told me in an email recently," we haven't looked at 2007 suicides -- and it's a tough subject to get timely statistics on. The Defense Manpower Data Center reports, which come out periodically and are broken down by casualty category,' do keep a running count of
self-inflicted deaths -- but because some cases are listed as 'pending,' and can be moved into the 'confirmed' category months later, it's tricky to get an accurate tally by calendar year."

Not even included in these tallies are cases like the following: "Two weeks ago Iraq vet Noah Pierce shot and killed himself in a remote section of northern Minnesota. The sheriff's office revealed that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and that Pierce had said, before he fled home with a few firearms, that he may be a danger to others as well as himself."

In the Deseret (Utah) Morning News last Monday, Stephen Speckman noted that the suicide rate among all veterans is now about twice the national average among nonveterans. On top of that, he added, "Among Army members, suicide rates between 2003 and 2006 for soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom were higher than the average Army rate, 16.1 versus 11.6 soldier suicides per year per 100,000, according to U.S. Army Medical Command spokesman Jerry Harben."

As for Andy Engstrom: There is no way of knowing right now why he put a bullet in his head in Iraq in early July. Some victims might have killed themselves without having served multiple tours of Iraq. Engstrom had been there since last October. But there was nothing to learn from press coverage of his funeral in Slaton on July 13: There was none that I could find. Nothing at all.

These sad events are often covered extensively by local papers saluting their hometown heroes. Do the families in these cases usually request a blackout? Hartz, the Lubbock reporter, tells me, "We are just waiting for the official report on his death to be released by the military. ... The family has not embraced coverage of Andrew's death, and therefore, our coverage has been limited." Locally, I can understand it, but there's no excuse for the lack of national attention to the number of suicides among U.S. troops.

The Associated Press reports on Wednesday the following.

Army soldiers committed suicide last year at the highest rate in 26 years, and more than a quarter did so while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new military report.

The report, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its scheduled release Thursday, found there were 99 confirmed suicides among active duty soldiers during 2006, up from 88 the previous year and the highest since the 102 suicides in 1991.

''Iraq was the most common deployment location for both (suicides) and attempts,'' the report said.

The 99 suicides included 28 soldiers deployed to the two wars and 71 who weren't. About twice as many women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide as did women not sent to war, the report said.

Preliminary numbers for the first half of this year indicate the number of suicides could decline across the service in 2007 but increase among troops serving in the wars, officials said.

The increases for 2006 came as Army officials worked to set up a number of new and stronger programs for providing mental health care to a force strained by the longer-than-expected war in Iraq and the global counterterrorism war entering its sixth year.

Failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems and the stress of their jobs were factors motivating the soldiers to commit suicide, according to the report.

''In addition, there was a significant relationship between suicide attempts and number of days deployed'' in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries where troops are participating in the war effort, it said. The same pattern seemed to hold true for those who not only attempted, but succeeded in killing themselves.

There also ''was limited evidence to support the view that multiple ... deployments are a risk factor for suicide behaviors,'' it said.

About a quarter of those who killed themselves had a history of at least one psychiatric disorder. Of those, about 20 percent had been diagnosed with a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder and/or depression; and 8 percent had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, including post traumatic stress disorder -- one of the signature injuries of the conflict in Iraq.

Firearms were the most common method of suicide. Those who attempted suicide but didn't succeed tended more often to take overdoses and cut themselves.

In a service of more than a half million troop, the 99 suicides amounted to a rate of 17.3 per 100,000 -- the highest in the past 26 years, the report said. The average rate over those years has been 12.3 per 100,000.

The rate for those serving in the wars stayed about the same, 19.4 per 100,000 in 2006, compared with 19.9 in 2005.

The Army said the information was compiled from reports collected as part of its suicide prevention program -- reports required for all ''suicide-related behaviors that result in death, hospitalization or evacuation'' of the soldier. It can take considerable time to investigate a suicide and, in fact, the Army said that in addition to the 99 confirmed suicides last year, there are two other deaths suspected as suicides in which investigations were pending.


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