Survey Finds Rise in Suicide, Divorce Among Soldiers

NPR has obtained information on the latest Pentagon mental health survey from Iraq, showing increased suicide rates, more divorces and lower morale. Top generals will be briefed in the coming weeks.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A new Pentagon report has some troubling findings on the mental health of soldiers serving in Iraq. The unpublished survey has been obtained by NPR. It shows an increase in suicides, a sharp drop in morale, and an increase in divorces for the longest-serving soldiers.

NPR's Tom Bowman has our story.

TOM BOWMAN: A team of Army psychologists and counselors traveled through Iraq earlier in the fall and talked to nearly 2,300 soldiers. This is what they found. Suicides have increased about 5 percent over last year. Morale is high among soldiers on their first deployment. About 30 percent report very good morale. But that number plummets for soldiers by their third deployment, just 15 percent report high morale.

These findings concerned Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who is pressing top Pentagon officials to do more about soldiers' mental health.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington): Soldiers that I talked to, the mental strain of being on the ground for 15 months, not just once, but then twice, but then three times, has a tremendous pressure on them and their families.

BOWMAN: And that pressure is breaking up families. The Pentagon survey found a connection between divorce and the 15-month combat tour. By the end of that tour, about one-third of privates and corporals say they intend to divorce, along with nearly one-quarter of sergeants.

Again, Senator Murray.

Sen. MURRAY: We keep asking the same people to go back. That is not fair, and it is putting a strain on them that is a responsibility for the entire country.

BOWMAN: Fifteen-month deployments breaking up young marriages is not surprising to mental health professionals. But retired brigadier general and psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis says the survey's overall result point to a troubled Army, showing the effects of six years of war.

Dr. STEPHEN XENAKIS (Retired Brigadier General and Psychiatrist): I think that the cumulative effect or picture is that people are feeling the stress. The soldiers are feeling the stress, and the leaders are feeling the stress.

BOWMAN: The Army wouldn't discuss the findings of the latest mental health report because top generals are just being told about it. But the Army has released some details in suicide rates and will only say they appear to be higher.

Colonel Elspeth Ritchie is a psychiatrist with the Army Surgeon General's Office. She says the main reason for suicides is failed relationships fractured by more time in Iraq.

Colonel ELSPETH RITCHIE (Psychiatrist, Army Surgeon General's Office): Would shorter deployment and less frequent deployment increase the morale of the force? Absolutely. Would that decrease suicides? We don't know. It might.

BOWMAN: Over the past year, the Army sent suicide prevention teams to Iraq. Colonel Ritchie says there's also more training for counselors as well as average soldiers, helping them spot the warning signs.

Col. RITCHIE: One of our training tools uses the acronym ACE. Ask, Care, Escort. Ask a soldier if he is down, if he is thinking of killing himself. Show that you care about the soldier, and then escort him or her to help. Don't leave that soldier alone and go get help, but take that soldier with you.

BOWMAN: NPR has reported extensively on the mental health of returning soldiers. In some cases, there are roadblocks with officers. There's still a stigma when it comes to counseling and therapy. And some officers believe soldiers who claim to have problems are trying to shirk their duties.

Senator Murray agrees.

Sen. MURRAY: The junior commanders are not looking into the eyes of their troops, those people on the ground, and saying, this is an issue we all have to deal with.

BOWMAN: This is the fifth mental health report done on the Iraq war. The last one released in May said soldiers need more time off to recover from the ravages of war, especially soldiers exposed to heavy combat.

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the time that the Army didn't have enough soldiers to replace those taking more time off. Gates conceded the military may just have to accept a greater number of troubled soldiers.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): We are just going to have to ensure that if we do have more troops coming back with problems, that we have the resources in place and the procedures to make sure that they're properly treated.

BOWMAN: This time, the mental health experts shy away from suggesting more time off. But they have more recommendations, including sending more Army psychologists and counselors to Iraq.

Retired General Xenakis thinks that's a good idea, but he says it will be difficult for the Army to fill those jobs.

Dr. XENAKIS: It's a small number of people really trained and a small number of people who'd really be available to either get them in theatre or to work in our posts, camps and stations back here.

BOWMAN: The Pentagon is looking at another option that could improve the mental health of soldiers. Those 15-month tours may drop to 12 months for soldiers heading to Iraq later next year.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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