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Originally published January 19, 2011 at 2:37 PM | Page modified January 19, 2011 at 8:27 PM

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Spike in suicides for Army Guard and Reserve

Suicides among active duty soldiers dropped last year for the first time since 2004, the Army said Wednesday, but the improvement was overshadowed by a sharp increase in suicides among National Guard and Reserve troops.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON —

Suicides among active duty soldiers dropped last year for the first time since 2004, the Army said Wednesday, but the improvement was overshadowed by a sharp increase in suicides among National Guard and Reserve troops.

After working much of the past decade to stem the rise of suicide in its ranks, the Army said that 156 active-duty soldiers killed themselves in 2010, down from 162 in 2009. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli attributed the progress to improved training and counseling programs that help soldiers deal with stress, including from the repeated wartime deployments common for soldiers in an Army still fighting two wars.

But the number of guard and reserve troops who killed themselves while not on active duty jumped to 145 from 80 the previous year. Officials said some of that increase may reflect the difficulty in getting help to people scattered away from military bases and back at their civilian homes and jobs.

"They are often geographically separated, removed from the support network provided by military installations," Chiarelli said. "They lack the ready camaraderie of fellow soldiers and the daily oversight and hands-on assistance from members of the chain of command experienced while serving on active duty."

Guard suicides rose to 101 last year from 48 in 2009 and in the reserve to 44 last year from 32 the previous year.

Reserve and Guard soldiers tend to be older, with more responsibilities. They may live and work far from support services on military bases and may feel isolated when they return to civilian life, officials said. Unlike active-duty soldiers, reserve troops may not have ironclad job protection.

The Army recognizes that reservists are more vulnerable than active duty soldiers when the economy is bad and unemployment rises, Chiarelli said, and is trying to find ways to lessen the risks.

Although many of those serving now joined with the expectation of wartime service, the duration and repetition of wartime deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan is one factor the Pentagon has previously identified as a possible reason behind suicides.

The high pace of operations in America's two foreign wars does not entirely explain the rise, and Army officials said they are at a loss to fully explain it.

Factors found in the deaths include broken personal relationships, financial problems, legal problems - all things that can be aggravated by the wartime separations. On the other hand, Army statistics have repeatedly shown that the majority of suicides are among troops not deployed at the time of their deaths, or troops who had never been deployed.

"As a nation, we aren't doing nearly enough to ensure suicide prevention methods reach every service member," said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Executive Director Paul Rieckhoff. "Without a national prevention campaign targeting every service member and veteran from Kabul to Kansas City, too many men and women of this generation will continue to fall through the cracks."

Lt. Gen. Jack Stultz, chief of the Army Reserve, said reservists are spread out geographically, often living in one state and belonging to a unit in another state. He said leaders are looking for more ways for commanders to keep in contact with the members of their Reserve units during the bulk of the month, when they are not gathering for their training exercises.

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Chiarelli said officials are working to replicate among Army reservists the progress made with active duty soldiers by expanding programs and making it easier for reservists to participate.

The Army now trains troops that mental fitness is as important as physical fitness, although it has not erased the stigma of seeking help for mental problems and stress. The Army has changed the way it diagnoses and manages pain and improved mental health screenings when troops return from tours of duty, Chiarelli said.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Carpenter, acting director of the Army National Guard, said the risk of suicide among his soldiers does not appear to be substantially linked to war deployments or lack of jobs. Instead, he said, about half the cases of Guard soldiers' suicides involved people in troubled relationships.

All totals reported Wednesday were deaths that are believed to be suicides, though not all investigations are complete. The 156 active duty deaths included 125 that have been confirmed as suicides and 31 remain under investigation and for the reserve it was 106 out of the 145 that are confirmed as suicide, and 39 still under investigation. The vast majority reported each year are ultimately confirmed.

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