THE leadership of the US army has been accused of failing to pay enough attention to the mental health of troops after a record number of soldier suicides.
An internal army report found the top brass had failed to recognise a disturbing trend and was often too distracted by planning for the next military mission.
With the US stretched militarily as it fights wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the report commissioned by the army’s vice-chief of staff, General Peter Chiarelli, found the suicide rate among soldiers had jumped to record levels, surpassing the civilian rate.
Last year, there were 160 suicides among soldiers on active duty, putting the army suicide rate at 20.2 per 100,000. The US national average is 19.2.
The study, commissioned by General Chiarelli, also reported 1713 suicide attempts last year and 146 deaths caused by high-risk behaviour such as drug abuse and drink-driving.
Most of the suicides occurred when soldiers were in the US, either before a deployment or after returning.
According to the report, the number of suicides has increased steadily since 2004. Also on the increase among soldiers has been the use of prescription drugs
such as anti-depressants and painkillers.
The report pins responsibility on US army leaders for failing to detect earlier the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers, and neglecting those at risk of suicide.
It is particularly scathing about the military leadership allowing an increase in risk-taking behaviour.
“Leader accountability” had atrophied, the report said.
“There were too many gaps and seams in programs and processes that allowed high-risk behaviour to continue undetected and seemingly unchecked.”
General Chiarelli said it would be wrong to blame a rise in the suicide rate only on a decade of war. Nonetheless, he was concerned that the suicide rate had been pushed higher because soldiers had been sent on multiple deployments to war zones.
“That has just always been my concern, that they may be it, that may be the reason.
“But I don’t have any data that I can tie that to,” he said.
General George Casey, the army’s chief of staff, said, because of the “unprecedented operational tempo” of the past few years, military leaders were continually focused on the next deployment of troops.
“After nearly a decade of war, we must keep pace with the expanding needs of our strained army, and continuously identify and address the gaps that exist in our policies, programs and services,” General Casey said.
“This comprehensive review exposes gaps in how we identify, engage and mitigate high-risk behaviour among our soldiers.”
The US plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq next month but will leave 50,000 soldiers in the country. After President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops last December, the US has close to 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.