Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Suicide claims more Utah Guard members than combat

Suicide claims more Utah Guard members than combat

By Matthew D. LaPlante

The Salt Lake Tribune

Posted: 02/03/2009 06:17:00 PM MST

Since 2005, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the lives of two soldiers from the Utah National Guard.

Suicide has claimed 10.

In response to an alarming increase of suicide in its ranks, the military has hired a virtual army of social workers, mental health professionals and suicide-prevention counselors to work with its members. But for the fourth consecutive year, the Army has reported an increase in the number of soldiers it has lost to suicide. At least 128 soldiers took their own lives in 2008 - - --- and that number could rise, as 15 other deaths remain under investigation.

"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you," said Army Secretary Pete Geren. "But we can tell you that across the Army, we're committed to doing everything we can to address the problem."

In response to the rising numbers, the Army will conduct a 30-day "stand-down" starting Feb. 15, which will include training for members to recognize behaviors among their peers that may lead to suicide.

Utah National Guard officials said they are awaiting guidance on how to conduct that program, but will continue education and training efforts that seem to have helped to decrease suicide among their ranks in the past four years.

The Utah guard lost three soldiers to suicide in 2005, four in 2006, one in 2007 and two in 2008. Officials said statistics from prior years were unavailable because the Guard's personnel officers didn't track



suicides separately from other deaths until 2005, but at least one soldier killed himself in 2004 while on duty in Afghanistan with the 211th Aviation Battalion.

Since the overall count of Utah Guardsmen is small compared to the Army as a whole, the drop is not considered statistically significant. But Utah Guard officials said the local reduction is promising, and Adjutant General Brian Tarbet said he would not let up the fight.

"Our soldiers and airmen and their families give their all to protect us at home and abroad," Tarbet said, "and we will continue to do all we can as leaders to educate our members on how to recognize, report and prevent suicides."

Veterans advocacy groups say the military's data undercounts the problem. That's because it doesn't include people like Jason Ermer -- an Iraq War veteran who killed himself after leaving the service. The 28-year-old shot himself in the head in the foothills near his Ogden home on Dec. 31, 2007.

Ermer's mother believes that the Army abandoned her son. She says he was forced out of the service after returning from combat with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He was heartbroken," Rosa Ermer said. "He went over to Iraq, he served his country with pride, and then they took everything away from him. They knew he had problems and they didn't take care of them. They just got rid of him."

Confronted with a wave of such stories and under pressure from Congress, the military has imposed a more rigorous screening process for separating members who may be suffering from war-related mental illness. Rosa Ermer said she's glad to know that the military is beginning to address the problem.

Utah Guard spokesman Hank McIntire said there's no way to know how many Utah soldiers might have killed themselves after leaving the military.

"There's not a formal process in place," he said, "We'd certainly like to know, but there is no form or official way."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

I have PTSD and I have to ask how much is the military doing for the "troops" and how much is for the PR aspect of what is happening? The military frowns on mental health treatment at the unit level and people get harassed for trying to get mental health help, and much of their public posturing seems more to be for the "we are helping them" rather than doing the serious business of actually getting these men and women actual help.

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