Record High Army Suicides Prompt Action

The widow of Spc. Timothy Hanley, Markel, and their son, Tim Jr. i i

Spc. Timothy Hanley's widow, Markel, and their son, Tim Jr., sit on the porch of their home in Hopkinsville, Ky. Hanley killed himself in September 2007, a year after returning from Iraq. Blake Farmer for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Blake Farmer for NPR
The widow of Spc. Timothy Hanley, Markel, and their son, Tim Jr.

Spc. Timothy Hanley's widow, Markel, and their son, Tim Jr., sit on the porch of their home in Hopkinsville, Ky. Hanley killed himself in September 2007, a year after returning from Iraq.

Blake Farmer for NPR
Role Playing game from Will Interactive i i

Soldiers now use an interactive video to role play as the buddy of another soldier in crisis. The choices made at the end of each scene lead either to finding help for this imaginary soldier or attending his funeral. Will Interactive hide caption

itoggle caption Will Interactive
Role Playing game from Will Interactive

Soldiers now use an interactive video to role play as the buddy of another soldier in crisis. The choices made at the end of each scene lead either to finding help for this imaginary soldier or attending his funeral.

Will Interactive

A U.S. soldier is now more likely than a civilian to take his own life. The Army crossed that threshold at the end of 2008 — a year in which 140 soldiers killed themselves — a record high. And the situation is getting worse, not better.

The Army counted 64 possible suicides in the first four months of this year, 11 of those were at Fort Campbell, Ky. — four suicides in January, three in February and four in March.

The stories from this sprawling post on the Tennessee-Kentucky line are tragic and disturbing. Sgt. Jeremy Duncan deployed from Fort Campbell to Iraq with a soldier who killed himself last year with a shotgun.

"And his fiance and his kids were there," Duncan says. He says he would never have known his friend was in trouble. "We don't know what his reasons were. He was like normal, daily life and just called it quits."

The Army has commissioned a $50 million study to help explain the rash of suicides. With so much unknown, officers have been pleading with soldiers to watch each other.

"Make sure they are in touch with that ground of reality, and that they're not thinking of doing something stupid, like killing themselves," says Chaplain Kevin Wilkinson to a briefing room full of 101st Airborne Division soldiers. He says the greatest deterrent to suicide is sitting beside the person as he struggles for a laugh at a pre-deployment briefing.

"Killing yourself is a bad thing. Really it is. It's not good," Wilkinson says.

Imaginary Buddies

Light-hearted pep talks like Wilkinson's haven't helped, so now the Army includes an interactive video in these briefings, where soldiers role play with an imaginary buddy in crisis.

Here's a scene at a bowling alley: Two friends home from Iraq, one hasn't been acting himself, and in the video he lashes out at his wife after she tells him to slow down on the drinks.

"I'll have another beer if I want to and I will have 15 more," the imaginary buddy says.

"Whoa. Things just got a little awkward," the announcer says. "And you think you should do something, but you're not sure just what. So..."

The scenario then prompts the service member to choose "ask your buddy if you could go with him to see a counselor" or "brush off the episode."

"You make the right decisions, you save his life. If you don't make the right decisions, you find yourself at his funeral," says Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who heads up the Army's new suicide task force. He's begun receiving in-depth reports on the actual suicide victims and what attempts were made to intervene.

"In some instances, you could tell by the commander's words that he wishes somebody had done something different, that they might have precluded it had somebody paid a little bit more attention," Chiarelli says. "Yet in other cases, the chain of command did everything absolutely perfect, absolutely perfect, yet the outcome was the same."

Missing The Signs

Markel Hanley sifts through the mementos of her husband, Spc. Timothy Hanley, who died in late 2007. Her husband's mementos, including a Purple Heart, are stashed in an antique china cabinet. That award came after a brush with death in Iraq. When her husband came home, she says, he wasn't the same — he'd fire guns in the house and get raging drunk. On a more subdued day, Hanley remembers a phone call.

"[He] gave me the phone and told me 'I'm going to go shoot myself in the f***ing head.' And he walks to the back to our bedroom. He shuts the bedroom door. Locks it. And a few seconds later, you hear a shot," Hanley says.

Though the young widow pieces together the warning signs now, she never suspected suicide. But, Hanley says, Fort Campbell counselors and psychologists, who regularly canceled appointments, didn't act too concerned either.

"They considered him to be depressed. They considered him to have problems with alcohol, but they never considered him to be suicidal," Hanley says. "They sent him home with some medication and told him to be good, basically."

Re-Examining Army Operations

The military's top brass admits to a growing shortage of qualified mental health professionals.

Gen. Chiarelli has new recommendations following an eight-day suicide tour to Fort Campbell, Fort Bragg, Fort Drum and others. He suggests moving counselors out of Army hospitals and into smaller clinics, and expanding a program that allows soldiers to meet confidentially with mental health professionals off post.

Chiarelli also endorses a marriage enrichment program offered by chaplains at some posts, which deals with a common thread in soldier suicides.

"Over 70 percent — 72 percent of the cases — you have one constant and that was a problem with a relationship," Chiarelli says.

But the Army is also depending on some relationships — that of those between soldiers.

The "buddy system" is nothing new, says Fort Campbell's suicide prevention coordinator Joe Varney, but it remains a soldier's greatest hope.

"The best thing we can do is be alert, to watch the guy next to us for any signs or symptoms of suicidal tendencies, and then be courageous enough to ask that person, 'Are you thinking about killing yourself?'" Varney says.

The point-blank question is just the start. The challenge then becomes tactfully guiding soldiers at their wit's end — each with a unique history and personality — to seek out help. And while the Army's prevention efforts have no-doubt had a positive effect, soldier suicides are on pace to hit a new record high this year.

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