March 25, 2004
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers in Iraq were plagued by low morale, experienced spikes in suicides last July and November and lacked access to some medications sought by military mental-health specialists to treat emotional problems, Army experts reported on Thursday.
A 12-person Army Mental Health Advisory Team issued a 38-page report on issues faced by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, including suicide, combat stress and the availability of help from the Army. The team traveled to Iraq from August to October 2003 and interviewed almost 760 soldiers. The report found a "significant proportion" of soldiers "experienced and reported behavioral health concerns, and that there was an unmet need for behavioral services."
Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. James Peake noted that the report focused on a period when U.S. soldiers faced a mounting insurgency and questions over the length of their deployment. During a Pentagon briefing, team members gave fresh details on Army suicides, saying that since last April, 22 male soldiers and two female soldiers had taken their own lives in Iraq and Kuwait. All but one were by gunshot, with the lone exception being an overdose of headache medication.
Three other Army deaths -- two last year and one this year -- are under investigation as possible suicides, officials said. In addition, seven soldiers have committed suicide after returning from Iraq, officials said. Col. Bruce Crow, a clinical psychologist who served on the team, said suicides peaked with five in July and four in November but averaged about two per month for most of 2003. U.S. troops faced heightened attacks during those two months. He said the only suicide by an Army soldier in Iraq this year occurred this month.
Army officials disclosed some of the suicide findings on Wednesday, including a suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers among soldiers in Iraq, much higher than the overall Army rate. Crow said this compared to a rate of 15.6 per 100,000 during the Vietnam War and 3.6 during the 1991 Gulf War.
The report also detailed low morale among Army soldiers, with 72 percent of those questioned characterizing morale as either low or very low in their unit and 52 percent saying their personal morale was either low or very low. Combat stress was caused by seeing dead bodies, personally coming under attack or knowing someone who was killed or seriously wounded, the report said. Other factors included soldiers' uncertainty over when they would go home.
The report found that soldiers who showed signs of depression, anxiety or traumatic stress were more likely to say it was too difficult to get help from the Army. About 57 percent of personnel in combat stress-control units and 67 percent in mental health offices attached to Army divisions in Iraq cited insufficient supplies of key medications, including antidepressants and sleep medications.
Psychiatrists in the field said the Army made it "unnecessarily complicated" to fill prescriptions, the report said. Half of these psychiatrists also reported being unhappy with the range of antidepressant medications available for them to provide soldiers. The Army plans to send another evaluation team to Iraq this spring.