US army officers ‘fail to spot suicide warning signs’

THE US army said leadership and discipline have deteriorated at bases in the United States, with officers missing warning signs of soldiers on the verge of suicide.

As the military focused on fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over nearly a decade, senior leaders have failed to track reckless behaviour and monitor alcohol and drug abuse among soldiers back home, said an army report on suicide prevention.

“Because of everything we’re doing, we have not paid the attention we need to high-risk behaviour,” said General Peter Chiarelli, the US army’s vice chief of staff, who oversaw the report.

Senior officers had “rightly prioritised the number-one thing that they were going to do is to prepare their soldiers to go into harm’s way,” he said.

But the army needed to improve “garrison leadership” at US bases and take steps to stop rising suicide rates, he said.

The general said “it’s time for the army to take a hard look at itself, to sit down and say, okay, what are those things that came lower on our priority list that we need to reinforce and start doing to get at this problem?”

The report, titled Health Promotion, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention, is the result of a 15-month effort to better understand the alarming increase in suicides.

The army reported 32 suicides in June, an all-time high, and so far this year 80 active duty soldiers and 65 soldiers in the reserves have committed suicide.

The report showed illegal drug use was increasing among troops and that the army did not have a clear idea of the scale of the problem.

Crime also was “on the rise and discipline is seemingly going unchecked”, the report said.

About 1,054 soldiers who have committed two or more felony offences are still serving in the army, it said. The general said data showed soldiers who enlisted at an older age, about 28-29 years old, were three times more likely to take their lives, possibly because they had more personal or financial problems.

And suicides were more frequent among soldiers in their first year in the army, with the risk gradually declining the more time soldiers served in the force.

“We see more suicides in that first year than in any other years,” he said.

There was no evidence that showed soldiers who had been repeatedly deployed in combat faced a greater risk of suicide, but Chiarelli said he still suspected could be the case.

To combat suicides and a rise in depression and anxiety, the army hoped to increase the time soldiers had at home between deployments, he said.

The army hopes to give soldiers two years at home for every year deployed.

Preventing suicides remained a difficult task, and some cases defied explanation, he said.

Chiarelli said there were about two or three suicides a month in which soldiers displayed no tell-tale signs of desperation beforehand.

“These are the ones that are so perplexing and difficult for us to understand,” he said.


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