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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2004

Soldier suicides a rising concern

Washington Post

LUFKIN, Texas — Two-year-old Jada Suell tumbled out of the car and ran ahead of everyone — her grandmother, her mother, her cousins and her 4-year-old sister, Jakayla — toward the grave of Joseph Dewayne Suell.

Jakayla Suell, 4, straightens the fence that surrounds her father's grave during a visit with her family to the Cedar Grove cemetery in Lufkin, Texas. The Army says Joseph Dewayne Suell died in Iraq of a drug overdose.

Associated Press

"Dada," said the little girl. In the Sunday afternoon quiet of Cedar Grove cemetery, her toddler voice reverberated like a shout.

"Yes, we're going to Daddy's grave," her grandmother Rena Mathis said reassuringly.

The silver grave cover bore colorful wreaths and American flags — a nod to Suell's three years of military service.

He was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 as an Army petroleum supply specialist out of Fort Sill, Okla. Less than two months later, he was dead.

A report provided to the family at their request says that the 24-year-old died of a drug overdose on Father's Day, one of 22 suicides reported among troops in Iraq last year.

According to William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, who discussed the suicides in a briefing last month, that represents a rate of more than 13.5 per 100,000 troops, about 20 percent higher than the recent Army average of 10.5 to 11.

The Pentagon plans to release the findings of a team sent to Iraq last fall to investigate the mental health of the troops, including suicides.

The number Winkenwerder cited does not include cases under investigation, so the actual figure may be higher. It also excludes the suicides by soldiers who have returned to the United States. For instance, two soldiers undergoing mental-health treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington reportedly committed suicide there, in July 2003 and last month.

In its weekly report on the treatment of returning battlefield soldiers, the hospital never mentioned the deaths. An official at Walter Reed said the deaths are "suspected" suicides and are being investigated by the Army.

Stephen L. Robinson, who visits the hospital regularly and is executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group for veterans and soldiers, said there was no public record of the deaths. "They just covered it up," he said.

The military's emphasis on honor, valor and courage makes suicide perhaps one of its last taboos. The Pentagon does not publicly identify a soldier's death as a suicide but may classify it as a "nonhostile gunshot wound," or death from "nonhostile injuries," which can also include accidents such as negligent discharge of a weapon. In comparison, the Pentagon will release a description of the cause of death — enemy fire, a land mine, a car crash — for a soldier killed in action or as a result of an accident.

The Washington Post contacted more than a dozen families of soldiers whose causes of death were listed as noncombat related. Some said that although the military had not provided further details, information from soldiers in the field indicated that the deaths were from "friendly fire" or accidental weapons discharges. For others awaiting the results of an investigation, the possibility of suicide was too painful to bear.

"I am not ready to hear that," said the mother of one soldier who died from a gunshot wound to the head — a "noncombat weapons discharge," according to the Pentagon.

In Texas, the Suell family says the military has it wrong. Suellboy, as he was known to those closest to him, was strong-minded and a God-fearing Christian. The son of a minister, he preached to others that suicide was a sin. He drew hearts on the letters he sent to his wife and said he could not wait to come home to see his daughters.

Rebecca Suell, 23, said she will never believe that her husband killed himself. She and her mother-in-law, Mathis, 47, are demanding answers, and they say the military has been silent and unsupportive.

"We call them, we have questions, we want to know, and they don't have anything to tell us," Rebecca Suell said, standing at the edge of her husband's grave. "They don't have nothing to say, and that's not right."

The 130,000 troops stationed in Iraq are fighting the first prolonged ground war since Vietnam. What the two conflicts have in common is a public debate over the war itself, which can cause soldiers to question themselves, said Ronald W. Maris, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of South Carolina.

"World War I and World War II seemed a little more righteous in that there was an initial aggression by an enemy that we didn't start," he said. "That would not apply to Vietnam and not to Iraq."

The rate of military suicides is traditionally lower than that in the general population when looking at comparable age groups. And it usually decreases during wartime. A spike in the number in July prompted the military to send a mental-health team to Iraq to investigate.

"Once the fighting is over, that's when people have time on their hands in an austere environment and 24-hour access to guns," Pentagon spokeswoman Martha Rudd said. "And they have the time to brood on their problems."

The postwar troops stationed in Iraq have to contend with roadside bombs, mortars launched into their base camps and the plaintive cries of women and children that are sometimes a ruse for an ambush. Although units are starting to be rotated and replaced, the length of deployment is uncertain.

By contrast, there were four days of ground war in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, after which the U.S. coalition declared victory. Two suicides were recorded during that conflict.

Other recent U.S.-led engagements "were more like video games," Maris said. "When you have hands on, face to face, see the dying, see the injured, see the blood, see the suffering, it's a lot more difficult."

Robinson, of the resource center, who is a retired Army Ranger and fought in the first Gulf War, said Iraq is without a front line.

"Everybody's the enemy, there are no lines in front of you or behind you and the dangers are everywhere. ... Every trash pile is your potential death," he said.

"It's a different kind of war."