WASHINGTON — The 21 confirmed military suicides in
Iraq concerns the Pentagon's top health official, who said the military has boosted the presence
of mental health experts in theater to counter the problem.
William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health
affairs, said the Iraq wartime cases boost the Army's annual suicide rate from
11 per 100,000 during peacetime, to now 13.5 per 100,000.
"We don't see a trend there that would tell us we should be doing things
different," he told defense reporters Wednesday, but sees the need to
strengthen current programs.
Last year, the Army sent an assessment team to Iraq to study the suicide
issue, and now it has bolstered the presence of mental health experts in the
field, to include nine Army combat stress teams around the country that provide
counseling and medication to troops in need.
Of the 10,128 troops air-transported out of the theater for medical reasons —
from asthma problems to routine pap smear tests for women — a "relatively
small" 300 to 400 have been for mental stress, Winkenwerder said.
Instead, doctors are treating troops in country, based on studies that
indicate on-site treatment is more effective, Winkenwerder said.
The Army also instituted changes in its process of redeploying soldiers, to
- providing counseling to families to look for warning signs of depression
- beefing up counseling for returning troops
- offering a toll-free hot line for soldiers, family or friends to report
These changes followed murder-suicide incidents at Fort Bragg, N.C.,
involving soldiers returning from Afghanistan.
In 2001, the Army spent $600,000 on a program to broaden the number of
soldiers trained to recognize signs and triggers of suicide.
Instead of keeping the training chaplains and counselors, for example, the
Army expanded the pool to include financial advisers, troop leaders and drill
The Navy and Marine Corps accounted for three of the suicides, with the
remaining 18 were soldiers, Winkenwerder noted.
Winkenwerder also provided updates on the pneumonia cases in Iraq. During the
summer months, roughly 100 troops in the Middle East came down with the
pulmonary ailment, including 19 who suffered such serious bouts they needed to
be placed on ventilators. Two died from pneumonia.
For the majority of the cases, the cause was linked to the troops' onset of
smoking and breathing in the powder-fine dust of Iraq, Winkenwerder said.
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