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General says Army suicides have largely 'leveled off'

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
updated 4:27 PM EST, Thu January 19, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Army attempting to curb suicides
  • It has initiated several programs
  • Active-duty Army had a higher number of suicides in 2011
  • General believes numbers have 'leveled off' in past years

Washington (CNN) -- For three years, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli has been spearheading the Army's effort to reduce the number of suicides in the service.

His effort has been thorough and transparent -- but the numbers indicate the effort may not be effective.

The latest numbers released by Chiarelli during a briefing with reporters Thursday show that active-duty Army suicides were up again in 2011, compared to 2010. And suicides throughout the Army, the Army Reserves and the National Guard, while down in the past year, are still nearly 40% above what they were from 2008, the year before Chiarelli began overseeing the Army suicide prevention effort.

The figures show that there were 164 suicides in the Army in 2011, compared to 159 in 2010. For all three categories -- Army, Army Reserves and National Guard -- there were 278 suicides in 2011, compared to 200 in 2008.

Chiarelli said he is not frustrated by the trend. "The question you have to ask yourself, and this is the end no one can prove, is: What would it have been had we not focused the efforts that we focused on? How much more would it have continued to climb?"

"What I look at here is the fact that for all practical purposes for the last two to three years it has leveled off," Chiarelli said.

Chiarelli believes that one way to reduce soldier suicides is to get guns away from soldiers who exhibit high-risk behavior.

"A majority of them (suicides) have two things in common, alcohol and a gun. That's just the way it is," Chiarelli said. "And when you have somebody that you in fact feel is high risk, I don't believe it's unreasonable to tell that individual that it would not be a good idea to have a weapon around the house."

The general doesn't want to take the guns, he simply wants the Army to have the right to ask high-risk soldiers if they want their weapons locked up at a base depot while they are dealing with behavioral issues. Right now, an NRA-backed law forbids even asking soldiers about guns in the home.

Despite the negative numbers, overall the news is good, Chiarelli said.

"I think the fact that I'm in front of you here today, laying this out for you, shows you that we see these problems, we see where we've had successes and we're attacking those areas where we've got problems."

Last summer, the Army announced it was reducing the typical soldier's deployment time in Afghanistan from one year to nine months, a move that could help soldiers better deal with stress and help reduce family problems at home.

And, Chiarelli has said, the country needs to help veterans "blend back into the community." He also has advocated for more uniformed health-care providers.

Chiarelli has predicted recent treatment and mental health evaluation programs and awareness among military leaders will help turn the trend around.

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