WASHINGTON - Army soldiers committed suicide in 2007 at the highest rate on record, and the toll is climbing ever higher this year as long war deployments stretch on.
At least 115 soldiers killed themselves last year, up from 102 the previous year, the Army said yesterday.
Nearly a third of them died at the battlefront - 32 in Iraq and four in Afghanistan. But 26 percent had never deployed to either conflict.
"We see a lot of things that are going on in the war which do contribute, mainly the longtime and multiple deployments away from home, exposure to really terrifying and horrifying things, the easy availability of loaded weapons and a force that's very, very busy right now," Col. Elspeth Ritchie, psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon-general, said at a Pentagon news conference.
Some common factors among those who took their own lives were trouble with relationships, work problems and legal and financial difficulties, officials said.
More U.S. troops also died overall in hostilities in 2007 than in any of the previous years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Violence increased in Afghanistan with a Taliban resurgence, and U.S. deaths increased in Iraq even as violence there declined in the second half of the year.
Increasing the strain on the force last year was the extension of deployments to 15 months from 12 months, a practice ending this year.
The 115 confirmed suicides among active-duty soldiers and National Guard and Reserve troops who had been activated amounted to a rate of 18.8 per 100,000 troops - the highest since the Army began keeping records in 1980. Two other deaths are suspected suicides but are still under investigation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suicide rate for U.S. society overall was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the latest year figures were available.
So far this year, the trend in the Army is comparable to last year, said Lt. Col. Thomas E. Languirand, head of command policies and programs. As of Monday, there had been 38 confirmed suicides in 2008 and 12 more deaths that are suspected suicides but were still under investigation, he said.
The rate of suicide continues to rise despite efforts the Army has made to improve the mental health of soldiers, including more training and education programs for troops and families. Officials also have hired more mental-health workers, increased screening to measure the psychological health of soldiers, and worked to reduce any stigma that keeps them from going for treatment when they have symptoms of depression, anxiety and other emotional problems.
"We still believe there is more to be done, and we are committed to maximizing prevention" and treating those who need help, said Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum.