According to documents obtained by United Press International, more than 24 suicides and hundreds of medical evacuations for psychiatric problems have highlighted problems with the mental health of soldiers occupying Iraq.
 
The army's Medical Department after-action report suggests the military even has sent some soldiers to war who were mentally unfit in the first place.

"Variability in … screening guidelines for mental health issues may have resulted in some soldiers with mental health diagnoses being inappropriately deployed," the report said.

That could "create the impression that some soldiers develop problems in theatre, when, in some cases, they actually have pre-existing conditions."

Change needed

The October 2003 report said the military should consider quickly changing course to prevent deploying more soldiers with mental problems.

In a massive troop rotation now under way, more than 100,000 troops are heading to the region.

"Perhaps stricter predeployment screening is required to keep [back] at-risk soldiers … that may become non-functional in theatre due to mental health problems."

A number of veterans' advocates say signs of widespread mental problems among soldiers from Iraq shock them - one in 10 soldiers evacuated from Iraq to an army hospital in Germany were sent solely for mental problems.
 
The Pentagon says that number is not out of line. It also is investigating more than two dozen suicides in Iraq and Kuwait, but says the rate is not alarmingly high.

Veteran associations

"Mental health issues may have resulted in some soldiers with mental health diagnoses being inappropriately deployed"

Army Medical Department report

But Steve Robinson, executive director of the veterans' National Gulf War Resource Centre, has been pressing the Pentagon since 2001 to better screen soldiers for health issues.
 
Robinson, a former Army Ranger, said he was worried about mental problems and suicides among troops in Iraq.

"It is time to stop having congressional hearings on what needs to be done and have the Department of Defence step up to the plate and perform the screenings as required by law."

Army spokeswoman Martha Rudd would not respond to requests for comment.

But top Pentagon health officials told Congress last month that personal problems - family and money issues - appeared to be the root cause of the suicides.

Analysis

Statistics show that a soldier who had mental health problems when he was deployed would be at much greater risk of committing suicide in Iraq.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, the suicide risk among people with depression is 30 times that of the general population.

About two-thirds of those who take their lives have a depressive disorder at the time of their death, the society says.

The Pentagon says at least 21 Army soldiers have committed suicide in Iraq or Kuwait, making the rate of suicides there higher than expected.

Another five deaths there are being investigated as possible suicides and at least another six service-members have killed themselves after returning home.