Military Suicides Hit a Record High of 349
January 15, 2013
Robert Burns / Associated Press & Andy Greder, Sarah Horner and Will Ashenmacher / Pioneer Press
Suicides in the US military surged to a record 349 last year, far exceeding US combat deaths in Afghanistan, and some private experts are predicting the dark trend will grow worse in 2013. Pentagon figures show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before. The Pentagon's military and civilian leaders have acknowledged that more needs to be done to understand the causes.
2012 Military Suicides Hit a Record High of 349
Robert Burns / Associated Press
WASHINGTON (January 14, 2013) -- Suicides in the US military surged to a record 349 last year, far exceeding American combat deaths in Afghanistan, and some private experts are predicting the dark trend will grow worse this year.
The Pentagon has struggled to deal with the suicides, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force.
Pentagon figures obtained Monday by The Associated Press show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before and exceeded the Pentagon's own internal projection of 325. Statistics alone do not explain why troops take their own lives, and the Pentagon's military and civilian leaders have acknowledged that more needs to be done to understand the causes.
Last year's total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001. It exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, by the AP's count.
Some in Congress are pressing the Pentagon to do more.
"This is an epidemic that cannot be ignored," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Monday. "As our newest generation of service members and veterans face unprecedented challenges, today's news shows we must be doing more to ensure they are not slipping through the cracks."
Military suicides began rising in 2006 and soared to a then-record 310 in 2009 before leveling off for two years. It came as a surprise to many that the numbers resumed an upward climb this year, given that US military involvement in Iraq is over and the Obama administration is taking steps to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
"Now that we're decreasing our troops and they're coming back home, that's when they're really in the danger zone, when they're transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves," said Kim Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself between Iraq deployments in 2005. She directs a suicide prevention program for a support group, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS.
The Army, by far the largest of the military services, had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops last year at 182, but the Marine Corps, whose suicide numbers had declined for two years, had the largest percentage increase -- a 50 percent jump to 48. The Marines' worst year was 2009's 52 suicides.
The Air Force recorded 59 suicides, up 16 percent from the previous year, and the Navy had 60, up 15 percent. All of the numbers are tentative, pending the completion later this year of formal pathology reports on each case. Suicide prevention has become a high Pentagon priority, yet the problem persists.
"If you have a perfect storm of events on the day with somebody who has high risk factors, it's very difficult to be there every moment, fill every crack, and we just have to continue to be aware of what the risk factors are," Ruocco said.
David Rudd, a military suicide researcher and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Utah, said he sees two main categories of troops who are committing suicide at an accelerating pace: Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress or substance abuse, and those who have not gone to war but face troubled personal relationships, money problems or legal woes.
He is not optimistic about a decline soon. "Actually, we may continue to see increases," he said.
The Pentagon says that although the military suicide rate has been rising, it remains below that of the civilian population. It says the civilian suicide rate for males aged 17-60 was 25 per 100,000 in 2010, the latest year for which such statistics are available. That compares with the military's rate in 2012 of 17.5 per 100,000.
Officials say they are committed to pursuing ways of finding help for service members in trouble.
"Our most valuable resource within the department is our people. We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military," Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said Monday.
Two retired Army generals, Peter W. Chiarelli and Dennis J. Reimer, have spoken out about the urgency of reversing the trend.
"One of the things we learned during our careers," they wrote in The Washington Post last month, "is that stress, guns and alcohol constitute a dangerous mixture. In the wrong proportions, they tend to blow out the lamp of the mind and cause irrational acts."
As recently as 2005 the Army's suicide total was less than half last year's.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Washington office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said war veterans have faced difficulty adjusting to the less intense environment of their home bases. Others struggle with leaving the military in search of work in a tight civilian job market.
"It's difficult to come back from a war footing to garrison life," he said, where more mundane problems intrude on troops who had been focused almost entirely on their war mission.
Each year the Pentagon performs an in-depth study of the circumstances of each suicide. The most recent year for which that analysis is available is 2011, and among the findings was that those who took their own lives tended to be white men under the age of 25, in the junior enlisted ranks, with less than a college education.
The analysis of 2011's 301 military suicides also found that the suicide rate for divorced service members was 55 percent higher than for those who were married. It determined that 60 percent of military suicides were committed with the use of firearms -- and in most cases the guns were personal weapons, not military-issued.
That study also found that most service members who attempted suicide -- about 65 percent -- had a known history of behavior problems, whereas 45 percent of those who actually completed the act and killed themselves had such a history.
One such case was Army Spc. Christopher Nguyen, 29, who killed himself last August at an off-post residence he shared with another member of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., according to his sister, Shawna Nguyen.
"He was practically begging for help and nothing was done," she said in an interview.
She said he had been diagnosed with an "adjustment disorder" -- a problem of coping with the uncertainties of returning home after three deployments in war zones. She believes the Army failed her brother by not doing more to ensure that he received the help he needed before he became suicidal.
"It's the responsibility of the military to help these men and women," she said. "They sent them over there (to war); they should be helping them when they come back."
AP Broadcast correspondent Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.
The Defense Department's toll-free military crisis number is 800-273-8255.
Online: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: http://www.taps.org
Former Army Psychologist Critical of Military Dies by Suicide
Andy Greder, Sarah Horner and Will Ashenmacher / Pioneer Press
TWIN CITIES (January 14, 2013) -- Peter Linnerooth was an affable, punctual and conscientious graduate student at Minnesota State Mankato. He later earned a doctorate degree, became an Army psychologist and was deployed to Iraq during the height of the war. When he returned to Mankato, Linnerooth was a paranoid and disorganized assistant professor, friends say.
He went to Iraq to help US troops deal with the damage post-traumatic stress disorder inflicts, but upon return, he also was in the clutches of PTSD, said his mentor Dan Houlihan, professor director of Minnesota State's School Psychology Doctoral Program.
On Jan. 2, Linnerooth, 42, killed himself in Mankato.
Linnerooth was awarded a Bronze Star after an honorable discharge in 2008 and became critical of the military's limited work on providing mental health care to soldiers, particularly to those with PTSD, in the pages of Time magazine and the New York Times. Capt. Linnerooth will be buried with full military honors at 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 14, at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
"He was really, really suffering," Linnerooth's widow, Melanie Walsh, told Time for its story on his death. "And it didn't matter that he was a mental health professional, and it didn't matter that I was a mental health professional. I couldn't help him, and he couldn't help himself."
Houlihan was Linnerooth's adviser as he earned his graduate degree and later sought to hire Linnerooth after his military service, which began in 2002. Linnerooth was an
assistant professor at Minnesota State Mankato for about 18 months in 2008 and 2009, where he concentrated on "clinical interpersonal dynamics," according to his school biography.
"When he went in and when he came out, it was shockingly different," Houlihan said of Linnerooth's military service. "He had very clear symptoms of PTSD."
Houlihan and Linnerooth shared an office wall in Mankato, and Houlihan knew Linnerooth was in his office whenever he heard the motor of his paper shredder.
After Mankato, Linnerooth continued his work on the mental health of soldiers and returning veterans, especially those suffering from PTSD, with Veterans Administration medical centers in Capitola, Calif., and Reno, Nev.
His writing appeared in the medical journal of the American Psychological Association.
"That was the most vivid thing that stood out: He was a brilliant writer," Houlihan said. "He was the best pure writer I've ever dealt with. He had a writer's flair."
After his career as an Army psychologist, Linnerooth was critical of the Army and its response to the mental health needs of soldiers. In a 2010 interview, he lambasted military leadership for not being more connected with on-the-ground troops and for not allocating more resources for mental health programs, Time said.
"The Army has been criminally negligent." Linnerooth said.
In a 2009 New York Times article, Linnerooth said during his deployment in Germany, he was the sole psychologist for a community of 10,000 people in 2005. In the article, Linnerooth told a story about how he had treated a burly man whose job in Iraq was to recover the bodies of soldiers, and how one instance particularly haunted the soldier.
"He had picked up this corpse that was so badly burned, it weighed about 20 pounds," Linnerooth said. "He was this big, tough, awesome guy. For him, it was like picking up his daughter. That was an extreme case. But you get those at least once or twice a week."
Larry Shellito, commissioner of Veterans Affairs for Minnesota, didn't know Linnerooth but talked about the reach and grip of PTSD.
"Oftentimes, you have to look at the people that surround the people with (PTSD) to make sure they are also OK, because it's got a multiple impact," Shellito said. "It's not just the individual who suffers, it's the people who care for him."
Retired psychology professor Wayne Harris got to know Linnerooth when he worked as Harris' graduate assistant.
He recalls Linnerooth as bright, witty and "very conscientious."
"Really, he was just the type of person you'd want to be helping people, but that takes a personal toll," Harris said Saturday from his Minneapolis home. "He needed some support in his role, too."
Linnerooth was a psychologist with the US Army in San Antonio; Schweinfurt, Germany; and Iraq, where he was stationed for 18 months. His time in the Middle East, which spanned 2006 and 2007, was a period of escalating conflict and increased presence of US service members called "the surge." His Bronze Star was awarded for "meritorious service" in a combat zone.
"Having intellectual knowledge doesn't protect you from the effects of seeing things ... seeing people in difficulty, seeing people in pain, seeing people severely injured. Those memories are with you for a long time," Harris said. "There is no immunity from that."
He added that the effects of PTSD can strike long after the disorder's onset.
"Those scars are still there, and if things start falling apart in your life, those scars are going to have an effect," Harris said.
Houlihan said the scars came from being thrust into helping assist during surgeries after combat.
"If they had wounded people, he would scrub up and be in there," Houlihan said. "There is no training in psychology to prepare for that. And he saw things that he couldn't reconcile."
According to a friend quoted in Time, Linnerooth lost his job with the Veterans Affairs department in Reno when he missed a two-year deadline to get his state psychologist's license.
"He would have periods where he could get into something (at work), but then he would slip back into it" -- the effects of PTSD, Houlihan said. "It was a struggle."
Linnerooth also had started struggling in his second marriage, Time said.
Houlihan said Linnerooth's work should have focused on writing instead of working as a therapist.
"The military needs to be more up front to help people prepare, and Peter never lived to tell people that," Houlihan said.
Linnerooth was born in Minneapolis, grew up in Mankato and attended high school in Rochester, according to his obituary. He obtained degrees from Concordia College in 1992, Minnesota State Mankato in 1995 and the University of Nevada, Reno in 2004.
Time said Linnerooth is survived by his wife, Melanie; his mother, Gayle McMullen; a sister; three children, including two from a previous marriage; and two stepchildren.
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