MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. A U.S. soldier is now more likely than a civilian to take his own life. Army leaders are worried about the trend and have taken steps to address it, but the suicide rate continues to inch up. There were 64 possible suicides in the first four months of this year. Nearly a dozen of those were at one place, Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer reports.
BLAKE FARMER: Four suicides in January, two in February, four in March, one in April, the stories from this sprawling post on the Tennessee-Kentucky line are tragic and disturbing. Sergeant Jeremy Duncan deployed from Fort Campbell to Iraq with one of last year's victims, who killed himself with a shotgun.
Sergeant JEREMY DUNCAN (United States Army): You know, his fiance and his kids were there and just all over the door. And it was like, whoa.
FARMER: Duncan says he would never have known his friend was in trouble.
Sgt. DUNCAN: Because he was like normal, daily life and just, huh, called it quits.
FARMER: 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.
Chaplain KEVIN WILKINSON: Make sure they are in touch with that ground of reality, and that they're not thinking of doing something stupid, like killing themselves.
FARMER: Chaplain Kevin Wilkinson tells a briefing room full of 101st Airborne Division soldiers that the greatest deterrent to suicide is sitting beside them. Lighthearted pep talks, like this one last year, 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.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man #1: I'll have another beer if I want to, and I'll have 15 more.
Unidentified Man #2: Whoa. Things just got a little awkward. And you think you should do something, but you're not sure just what. So…
FARMER: Ask your buddy if you could go with him to see a counselor, or brush off the episode?
General PETER CHIARELLI (Vice Chief of Staff of the Army): You make the right decisions, you save his life. If you don't make the right decisions, you find yourself at his funeral.
FARMER: Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli 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.
Gen. CHIARELLI: In some instances ,you could tell by the commander's words that he wishes somebody had done something different, that they might've precluded it had somebody paid a little bit more attention. And yet, in other cases, the chain of command did everything absolutely perfect. Absolutely perfect, yet the outcome was the same.
FARMER: Take Specialist Timothy Hanley, who died in late 2007.
Ms. MARKEL HANLEY: This was his cowboy hat that he was so proud of.
FARMER: Markel Hanley sifts through her husband's mementos stashed in an antique china cabinet, like a Purple Heart. That came after a brush with death in Iraq. When Hanley 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.
Ms. HANLEY: Gave me the phone and told me, I'm going to go shoot myself in the (BEEP) head. And he walks to the back to our bedroom. He shuts the bedroom door, locks it. A few seconds later, you hear a shot.
FARMER: 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.
Ms. HANLEY: They considered him to be depressed. They considered him, you know, to have problems with alcohol. They considered this and that, but they never considered him suicidal. They sent him home, you know, with some medication and told him to be good, basically.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FARMER: The military's top brass admits to a growing shortage of qualified mental health professionals. General 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 deal with a common thread in soldier suicides.
Gen. CHIARELLI: Over 70 percent, 72 percent of the cases, you had one constant, and that was a problem with a relationship.
FARMER: But the Army is also depending on some relationships, 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.
Mr. JOE VARNEY (Suicide Prevention Coordinator, Fort Campbell): The best thing that 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?
FARMER: 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.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.