Duquesne professor addresses growing Army suicide rate

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Just look to Homer's "Iliad" to see that the problem of stress from combat is a timeless one, said the Rev. John Sawicki, an assistant political science professor at Duquesne University.

The spike in U.S. military suicides, however, is a more recent crisis.

It may have been a "perfect storm" of factors -- stress caused by long wars with multiple deployments compounded by personal financial pressures prompted by a global economic crisis -- that caused the Army suicide rate to surpass the civilian rate in 2008, he said.

It was the first time since the Vietnam War that the Army suicide rate surpassed that of civilians, according to Army statistics cited in a 2009 New York Times article.

And with 154 suicides among active-duty troops in the first 155 days of 2012, there are signs that the problem is worsening, Father Sawicki said. He called it "a very serious problem within military ranks, both active and retired."

Father Sawicki was today's keynote speaker at the Duquesne University School of Nursing's annual Rita M. McGinley Symposium, a national forum on health care issues. This year, the focus was on veterans.

Father Sawicki, whose doctorate focused on international security and international law, first started researching the problem of Army suicide a few years ago.

He was spending summers teaching at the Marshall Center for European Security in Germany, which is also the site of an Army barracks, and started hearing more about the problem of suicide among troops, most of whom were about the same age as his students at Duquesne.

"It just seemed incongruous to sort of see suicide as an issue among these individuals, who all seemed to be so robust and so oriented towards success," he said.

Yet war -- especially wars involving multiple or extended deployments and a high tempo of combat, among other factors -- "has mental and physical casualties," Father Sawicki said.

"The physical wounds, we understand," he said. "The internal, emotional, mental wounds are far, far more difficult to identify and as a consequence, far more difficult to admit."

Despite the "robust efforts" of the military to confront the problem of suicide among veterans and to provide resources to its soldiers, the stigma among veterans against seeking help persists, he said.

It is not, however, a problem that can't be solved, he said. One key to solving the problem, and something that he said he has learned in his 27 years as a priest, is to listen.

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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