April 11, 2004: Headlines: Lariam: Safety and Security of Volunteers: Toronto Star: Troops in Iraq on suicide watch - the defence department flatly denied that Lariam is to blame

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Troops in Iraq on suicide watch - the defence department flatly denied that Lariam is to blame

Troops in Iraq on suicide watch - the defence department flatly denied that Lariam is to blame

Troops in Iraq on suicide watch - the defence department flatly denied that Lariam is to blame

Troops in Iraq on suicide watch
24 U.S. personnel known to have killed themselves But Pentagon's psychiatric team finds `no crisis'


U.S. Army Specialist Joseph Suell wanted to be a career soldier. After serving in Korea for a year, he re-enlisted and last April was dispatched to Iraq.

Two months later, he took his own life or, in Pentagon parlance, suffered a "non-hostile, self-inflicted drug overdose." He was 24.

Back home in Texas, his wife Rebecca still can't understand how it happened. His last e-mail had read: "Over here, you never know what's going to happen next. So, I just keep my faith in Jesus and keep my eyes open."

In war, "collateral damage" usually means unavoidable civilian deaths. In the war in Iraq, it also has come to mean an alarmingly high rate of military suicides.

Twenty-four Americans 20 army personnel, two Marines and two sailors are known to have taken their own lives in Iraq in the past year. Two of them were female. Four other deaths are being investigated.

That means a suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000, a figure far in excess of last year's overall U.S. military rate of 12.8.

It doesn't include the deaths of newly States-sided troops, which the Pentagon doesn't count. There have been seven such suicides, including those of two soldiers who killed themselves while patients at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

Another three deaths are under investigation.

Already, one in every 10 soldiers evacuated out of Iraq for medical care is suffering from mental-health problems. Outraged veterans groups say the military is totally unprepared for the onslaught of post-traumatic stress disorders coming in the months ahead as more troops return home.

It is already happening.

In January, shortly after arriving home from Iraq, 28-year-old Specialist Jeremy Seeley walked off the 101st Airborne base at Fort Campbell, Ky., checked into a motel and put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.

Four days later, police discovered his body, alongside containers of household poison.

His family was stunned: Seeley had just re-enlisted and was awaiting deployment to Germany.

Last month, three weeks after returning to his Colorado Springs home, 36-year-old Chief Warrant Officer William Howell turned a revolver on himself.

He'd been a member of the elite Green Berets, a special-forces unit trained to be mentally and physically tough. He left a wife and four children.

"If soldiers such as Bill can have these problems," said Maj. Chad Storlie, Howell's former commander, "then there is something we are all missing."

After a spate of five suicides in July last year, the Pentagon took the highly unusual step of sending a psychiatric assessment team into the war zone. Its report was completed in December but not released until late last month.

The team concluded there was "no crisis" in Iraq; that the suicides could be explained by the victims' personal circumstances each had financial, domestic or legal problems. They also had 24-hour access to loaded weapons and all but one had shot themselves.

Of the 756 soldiers they interviewed, investigators reported that 72 per cent said their units suffered from low morale.

Nearly 75 per cent said they had little faith in their immediate superiors; that officers "showed little concern for their well-being."

Though mental-health counselling was available, most said there is a stigma attached to asking for help.

Army Sgt. Georg-Andreas Pogany learned about that firsthand. Last October, he became the only soldier since Vietnam to be charged with "cowardly conduct as a result of fear."

Pogany, 32, was an interpreter and interrogator assigned to a Green Beret unit in Samarra, north of Baghdad. On his first day on the job, an Iraqi was cut in half by machinegun fire after launching a rocket-propelled grenade. Pogany saw the body being brought in. The sight made him panic, shake uncontrollably and throw up.

"I couldn't function," he told the New York Times. "I had this overwhelming sense of my own mortality. I kept looking at the body, thinking that could be me two seconds from now."

He told his team leader he was "headed for a nervous breakdown" and couldn't carry on. "I was told to go away and think about it because I was throwing my career away."

Two days later, a psychologist at another base diagnosed Pogany with "signs and symptoms consistent with those of a normal combat stress reaction." He was told to get a couple of days' rest and report for stress-coping skills. Wanting to stay on in Iraq and work through his problems, he agreed.

When he returned to his unit, however, he was ignored for a day, then told he was being sent home to face a court-martial for cowardice. The charge has since been dropped to "dereliction of duty," but Pogany still faces a military trial.

Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center in Washington, doesn't think it's a coincidence that Howell, the Colorado suicide, and Pogany were in the same Green Beret unit.

If Howell was experiencing anxiety or depression, asks Robinson, "did the action against Pogany make him afraid to come forward? In special forces, there is even more of a stigma to talking about feelings."

Robinson, an ex-army Ranger who advocates for veterans' rights, says military suicide has "a lot to do with what the soldier brings to the table."

In other words, pre-existing psychological problems can be worsened by the very nature of combat, especially in a war like Iraq, where there is "no safe place."

Like Vietnam, Iraq has become a quagmire, Robinson says, where the threats to troops are constant, there is no front line and the foes are camouflaged amidst civilians.

"The enemy is 360 degrees above you, below you, around you. The fighting is up close and personal. People you see every day suddenly are planting a bomb, trying to kill you."

Robinson says unit mental health is a leadership issue.

"Things can be done to keep a soldier functional," he explains. "If I'd been Pogany's superior, I'd have put my arms around him and said, `It's okay to have fear.'"

Analysts say the situation in Iraq is exacerbated by a Pentagon policy that doesn't offer much stress training to support troops who don't serve in combat roles.

For every regular soldier in Iraq, there are 13 support troops who drive trucks, transport supplies or, as in Pogany's case, act as interpreters. A large number of National Guards and reservists are also among the 130,000 troops in Iraq.

"They've had minimal training," says Robinson, "and training is like a shield."

But aren't those with psychological problems screened out before they enlist, let alone deployed to an active war zone?

Seth Pollack, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, says dryly that it "depends how you define screening. What happens is that there are 300 guys in a gym, filling out a form that asks: `Do you have thoughts of suicide?'"

Pollack served in the army for eight years, four of them in Bosnia in the criminal investigation division where he handled 10 to 15 suicides.

He knows that the kind of depression that ends in suicide has to be triggered by something.

The 24 who've killed themselves in Iraq may well, as the military claims, have had financial, personal or legal problems back home, but Pollack thinks other factors had to have been involved.

"Uncertainty is the wild card," he says.

On top of an unpredictable guerrilla war, troops don't know when their tour of duty will end.

"In Vietnam, deployments were 12 months and in World War II, they weren't coming home until it was over," notes Pollack.

"At least they knew that."

In Iraq, he says, the policy keeps changing: 25,000 troops who thought they were coming home have just been redeployed.

"The military hasn't created a coherent policy for troop rotation because it is responding to the unrealistic politics of the administration."


Another wild card may be the use in Iraq of the anti-malaria drug, Lariam, despite a Federal Drug Administration warning that it can cause depression, aggression and suicidal thoughts.

In February, the defence department flatly denied the drug is to blame, but it has since agreed to study a possible link to the suicides and mental-health problems in Iraq.

Robinson is insisting that independent researchers be used.

"Soldiers were exposed to radiation during atomic testing and we now know the Pentagon was aware of the dangers with Agent Orange in Vietnam," he says.

"It's not paranoid to be skeptical."

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Story Source: Toronto Star

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Lariam; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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