Military Suicide Rate on the Rise

The rate of suicide among U.S. military personnel is on the rise. Defense officials say they are committing new resources to detecting and preventing suicidal behavior in soldiers, including those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But watchdogs-and a recent government report-suggest the Pentagon may not be doing enough to make sure at-risk personnel get treatment once they get home. Benjamin Shaw reports from Capitol Hill.

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Nearly a year ago two young Fort Hood soldiers killed themselves in separate incidents - less than a week apart.

In 2005 88 active duty soldiers committed suicide, a number that was up 13% from 2003 and more than 70% from 2001. Paul Rieckhoff executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calls the figures alarming. And says an over stretched military and repeat tours of duty are taking a toll on soldiers.

"Many are there now for a third and fourth time…divorce rates are going up…the violence continues to increase and one in three are coming home with mental health issues or post traumatic stress disorders."

The DOD has made changes in response to rising military suicides. Soldiers are screened for mental health issues before deployment and when they come home. While riding a train in the Senate basement - Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn said soldiers often don't seek treatment because of the stigma.

"I know the military has made a concerted effort to try to provide access to these mental health services but there's a certain resistance on people seeking them and they just think…I can just ride this out myself."

He says there's not a way to avoid the trauma of war. Overall, suicides in the military are relatively rare says Dr. David Thornberg, a deputy assistant secretary of defense and chief medical officer of the military's Tri-Care health program. Thornberg says that in 2005, the military's suicide rate was 11 per 100,000.

"The numbers go out and they tend to scare but people don't realize that our suicide rate is much lower than the civilian world itself."

But there was evidence earlier this month to suggest the Defense Department is less than effective in referring soldiers for mental health care. About 5% of soldiers who've fought in Iraq and Afghanistan met criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a study by the Government Accountability Office. But only one in five of those soldiers were referred for treatment by military clinicians.

The report's bottom line- the Pentagon cannot provide reasonable assurance that Afghanistan and Iraqi service members who need referrals, receive them. For Houston Public Radio, I'm Benjamin Shaw on Capitol Hill.