Suicide a rising concern among military veterans

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For many veterans, making the transition back to civilian life is a difficult task, said Roger Brooke, director of Military Psychological Services at Duquesne University.

"Particularly for people who have been in a combat zone, life will never be the same again," he said in an interview Friday. "One can never go back completely to a time of adolescent innocence.

"And those veterans who try to hurl themselves back into civilian life, drunkenly trying to get rid of the demons that haunt them, are asking for trouble."

For two days this week, Duquesne University School of Nursing held its annual Rita M. McGinley Symposium, a national forum on health care issues, and this year, the focus was on veterans, with speakers discussing topics ranging from homelessness among female veterans to pain management for dying veterans.

On Friday, the subject of the keynote speech given by the Rev. John Sawicki, an assistant political science professor at Duquesne University, was dealing with the problem of suicide among military veterans.

In his speech and in a later interview, Father Sawicki said it may have been a "perfect storm" of factors -- the stress of 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.

That year marked the first time since the Vietnam War that the Army suicide rate exceeded 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."

The problem of rising rates of Army suicide first came to his attention a few years ago, he said. Father Sawicki, whose doctorate focused on international security and international law, was spending summers teaching at the Marshall Center for European Security in Germany, which is also the site of an Army barracks. He 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.

War -- especially the wars Americans are fighting now, with multiple or extended deployments, a high tempo of combat and 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."

The military has taken "robust efforts" to confront the problem of suicide and to provide soldiers with resources. Still, he said, a stigma persists among veterans against seeking help.

Mr. Brooke, a clinical psychologist who served in South Africa's 1st Parachute Battalion and whose son served three tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army, said many of the veterans who do seek assistance from Duquesne's Military Psychological Services struggle to fit back in to civilian culture.

He said that the primary thing they can do -- and something Father Sawicki said he has learned to do in his 27 years as a priest -- is to be good listeners for returning veterans.


Kaitlynn Riely:


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