At least 13 soldiers have committed suicide in Iraq, representing more than 10% of non-combat deaths. More case are being probed, say officials in Washington.
A military combat stress officer Captain Justin Cole, who works at a US military base in Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, on Thursday said that while a majority of soldiers are dealing well with the stress of being away from home, for some it was proving too much.
He said he had personally dealt with two self-inflicted deaths. One soldier shot himself in the leg after being told he could not go home, hitting an artery.
Another, a woman, shot herself in the stomach. He said he thought neither meant to kill themselves.
“I don’t think the issues on hand were combat issues,” he said. “I think they were missing home, very much wanting to go home and as a result did harm to themselves. Unfortunately they did pass away.”
Cole said he knew of one case where a soldier overdosed on medication and was too far from proper medical treatment to recover and that another blew off his jaw but survived.
On the base at Tikrit, a former palace used by up to 3,000 soldiers, morale is good, dampened only by boredom and homesickness.
On the walls of the recreation centre, cartoons show a character pleading to go home, but generally the soldiers live in decent conditions, with working showers and plenty to eat.
“Things are getting better,” Corporal Vernon O’Donnell said. “Time is going kind of slow, just because we have been here for so long. But we are in the home stretch.”
“I think they were missing home, very much wanting to go home and as a result did harm to themselves”
Cole said incidents of suicide or self-inflicted injury affected the morale of all the troops.
“There could also be a type of copycat effect, let’s say if the soldier injures himself and gets to go back home, they (other soldiers) could probably, perhaps, want to injure themselves too.”
Soldiers under stress also had to overcome the stigma of going to seek help, he said.
“For the most part it’s not that acceptable (to seek help). I think soldiers are really trained to as we say ‘suck it up and drive on’. But by the time we see them we have serious issues (to deal with), “ Cole said.
The extent of the problem is difficult to judge. Army officials have expressed concern about the suicides. But, the overall commander of US forces in Iraq said the number of suicides among his troops was comparable to an average similar-sized group of people in the United States.
“It is not a remarkable rate,” Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez told a news conference in Baghdad on Wednesday.