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Suicide Report Makes Army Improve
By Sandra Jontz
Stars and Stripes
European Edition

March 29, 2004,

ARLINGTON, Va. Army officials are taking swift steps to improve mental health services for troops in Iraq and Kuwait in the wake of a study on suicides there, officials said Thursday.

Officials said the Army will send in behavioral health experts and improve logistics to get antidepressants and sleeping pills to combat troops immediately. Long-term, they said they will work to improve documentation and tracking systems so troops get better help in or out of theater.

A survey done by a 12-member team of mental health experts last summer and fall revealed the deficiencies, which also included the absence of suicide-prevention teams and a lack of radios and vehicles available to mental health professionals.

To increase availability, the Army is assigning one mental health care provider per company, a change from the previous plan of one per brigade, said Army Col. Virgil Patterson, who led the team in the first-ever behavioral health study done in a combat zone.

The Army has recorded 24 suicides in Iraq and Kuwait between April and March, with three more under investigation. The Marine Corps recorded two. There were no reported Air Force or Navy suicides, though one sailor's death is under investigation.

Seventy-two percent of the 756 troops surveyed this fall in Iraq and Kuwait reported low or very low unit morale, and 52 percent reported low personal morale, findings in line with an unscientific poll conducted last summer by Stars and Stripes.

The findings were "somewhat" surprising to Patterson. Of the "biased sampling" of surveyed troops, 82 percent had seen combat, Patterson said.

"It was a pretty miserable set of circumstances at the time," Patterson said Thursday at a media briefing. "We speculate that all of those contributed to the factor of low morale." The team conducted the survey between Aug. 27 and Oct. 7.

Factors included austere living conditions, brutal heat, a lack of communications with families back home, combat and traumatic stress and notably barriers in troops' ability to get help in dealing with the stress, Patterson said.

The team was dispatched to Iraq in July following a surge in suicides that month. Between April and June, the Army tallied two suicides a month. The figure climbed to five in July, a number that Lt. Gen. James Peake, surgeon general for the Army, described as a "little bump."

Last summer, 1,935 troops responded to a questionnaire circulated by Stars and Stripes reporters visiting camps throughout Iraq.


The Marine Corps

The Marine Corps already stepped up efforts in that arena with its OSCAR program, in place for the first time with the roughly 25,000 Marines now in Iraq and Kuwait.

OSCAR, or Operational Stress Control And Readiness, embeds mental health providers and specially-trained noncommissioned officers with frontline warriors, where they're needed most, said Cmdr. Morgan Sammons, deputy director for clinical operations at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.

OSCAR teaches Marines to recognize signs of current and post traumatic stress disorders, depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders, and how to seek help, program developer Cmdr. Jack Pierce said. Most notably, it puts trained noncommissioned officers with the units.

"The NCOs, the gunnery sergeants, they are someone who speaks their language."

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This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Copyright 2004 Stars & Stripes. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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