WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Suicides in the U.S. Army jumped 11 percent to a all-time high in 2008, as the stress of ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took a greater toll on U.S. soldiers, the armed service said Thursday.
Preliminary figures, which showed the Army's suicide rate for the first time eclipsing the comparable suicide rate for U.S. civilians, prompted Army leaders to announce a new training and prevention campaign to identify soldiers at risk.
But Army officials acknowledged that the rising suicide trends that have occurred among active duty soldiers and reservists since 2004 have largely eluded efforts to understand and reverse the deadly phenomenon.
"This is a challenge of the highest order for us," U.S. Army Secretary Pete Geren told reporters.
"Why do the numbers keep going up? We cannot tell you. But we can tell you that across the Army, we're committed to doing everything we can to address the problem," he said.
The Army's latest data showed 128 confirmed suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2008, versus a previous record of 115 in 2007. Another 15 deaths were suspected suicides, and if confirmed, would push the suicide total for last year to 143.
The Army said the figures equal a rate of 20.2 suicides for every 100,000 soldiers. That is higher than the last available civilian rate of 19.5 suicides per 100,000 people with similar age and demographic backgrounds, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported for 2005.
The U.S. Marine Corps said separately that suicides within its force rose 24 percent to 41 cases in 2008, up from 33 in 2007. The Marine suicide rate was 19 for every 100,000 troops.
The 128 confirmed Army suicides included six members of the Army Reserve and 13 members of the National Guard.
Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli will lead a new campaign to combat the suicide trend with special training and instruction that will begin in mid-February and run through mid-June.
The Army is also launching a $50 million research study on suicides and suicidal behavior in conjunction with the federal government's National Institute of Mental Health.
One leading factor in suicides is stress caused by deployments, particularly in combat zones, and the destructive effect on personal relationships, according to Army officials.
"We all come to the table believing that stress is a factor. It is always a factor," Chiarelli said.
As the largest branch of the U.S. armed forces with 1.1 million active duty and reserve soldiers, the Army has done the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, including years of extended duty and repeated deployments.
The armed service accounts for 127,000 of the 178,000 troops serving in the two war zones, or about 71 percent of the deployed U.S. military force.
But Army officials said the strain of warfare and multiple deployments does not fully explain the rise in suicides, noting that 35 percent of suicides last year occurred among soldiers who had never been deployed.
Another 35 percent of suicides followed deployment while 30 percent occurred while soldiers were in the field.
About 78 percent of deployed soldiers who committed suicide were on their first deployment, suggesting that some troops may learn to cope better with stress after multiple tours of duty, officials said.
Most of the soldiers who committed suicide after deployment took their own lives more than a year after their return home, which could suggest difficulties in returning to civilian life as a contributing factor.
Editing by Philip Barbara