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For two lawmakers, military suicides hit too close to home

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Unit
  • Reps. Joe Heck and Judy Chu have personal connections with military suicides
  • They both spoke during an Armed Services Committee hearing on Friday
  • A soldier under Heck's command recently committed suicide
  • Chu's nephew, a Marine, killed himself after an alleged hazing incident

Washington (CNN) -- For years, the Pentagon and Congress have worried over the problem of military suicides. The House Armed Services Committee held another hearing on this life-and-death issue Friday, but this time, it was more than studies and statistics.

For two members of Congress, suicide is an issue they know intimately.

"This is -- especially right now -- a bit of a personal issue for me," said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. "I just had a soldier recently under my command commit suicide.

"He was actually seen two hours earlier by another member of his unit. And both had been through the Army Reserve Suicide Prevention Training Program. And his colleague did not recognize anything that was out of the ordinary. And two hours later this other soldier took his own life."

Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, is not a member of the committee, but she was allowed to participate in the hearing because of her personal interest in the issue.

She told the story of 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, who got in trouble when he first arrived in Afghanistan for falling asleep while on watch. Chu said his sergeant told Lew's fellow Marines to "teach" him.

"Lance Corporal Lew was beaten, berated and forced to perform rigorous exercise. He was forced to do push-ups and leg lifts wearing full body armor, and sand was poured in his mouth. He was forced to dig a hole for hours. He was kicked, punched and stomped on. And it did not stop until 3:20 am," Chu told the committee.

Chu said that a few minutes later, "Lance Corporal Lew climbed into the foxhole that he just dug and shot himself and committed suicide.

"Lance Corporal Lew was my nephew."

Three Marines are facing a military criminal hearing in Hawaii connected to the hazing Lew allegedly endured before his suicide.

Chu asked the witnesses, high-ranking officers from all four services, about the problem of hazing. All four assured her that hazing was expressly prohibited.

It is unclear whether such incidents are a prime cause of suicides in the military.

Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick testified that his branch of the service, which has seen far more suicides in recent years than the other branches, has seen a new trend linking suicides to repeated deployments.

"In 2009, about 76% of those that committed suicide had one deployment. That's starting to change," Bostick testified. "This year we're seeing those with multiple deployments ... for the first time [the suicide rate] is starting to increase," Bostick testified.

Officers from the other branches of service testified they have seen little if any link between deployments and suicides among their troops.

Bostick said that the Army is trying to figure out why suicides among soldiers with multiple deployments are climbing.

"It's early. We don't know why that's happening, but we're looking at it very closely," he said.