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Study of Marine suicides getting under way

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Study of Marine suicides getting under way

With active-duty Marines taking their own lives at a near-record pace this year, officials are launching a long-planned study of what troops who have committed suicide were doing in the days leading up to their deaths.

Officials are also taking a deep look at the service’s“Never Leave a Marine Behind” suicide prevention program to see whether it needs tailoring.

The two actions come as the Marine Corps reported eight suicides in July, the highest number recorded this year.

Those deaths raised this year’s self-inflicted death toll to 32, the same number recorded for all of 2011. If the monthly trend continues, the Marine Corps could match or exceed the record 52 active-duty troop suicides recorded in 2009.

The “forensic” study of recent suicides is designed as a detailed examination of what the troops were doing throughout each day leading to the event.

“We’re really anxious to see what we can learn from reaching out to family members and friends and using (investigative) reports,” said Todd Shuttleworth, who oversees the Marine Corps’ suicide prevention program from the service’s headquarters in Quantico, Va.

The wealth of information the study aims to generate will help guide officials in evaluating current efforts and shaping changes or new initiatives, he said.

“We want to effectively be able to teach Marines the warning signs and how to seek help early, before a situation becomes a crisis, and teach them that it is OK to ask for help,” Shuttleworth said during a telephone interview last week.

The volume of contact in July to a 24-hour Marine Corps hotline and website —- launched on the West Coast three years ago and expanded worldwide in March —- is a clear indicator that troops and their families are looking for help.

Staffed by veteran Marines and Navy corpsmen who’ve spent time with combat units, as well as Marine spouses and licensed behavioral health counselors trained in Marine culture, the programs averaged more than 15 contacts a day last month.

Calls to the hotline at 1-877-476-7734 or online Skype visits to the website atwww.dstressline.com typically ran 10 to 15 minutes. Callers most often talked about relationship stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse and depression leading to suicidal thoughts and actions, according to the suicide prevention office.

As the numbers mount, the Marine Corps has taken another approach on the legal front by prosecuting one of its own who attempted suicide.

‘One is too many’

Suicide attempts among Marines peaked at 172 in 2010, falling just slightly to 163 last year. Through July, the service recorded 113 attempts, a pace that could match or surpass the 2010 mark.

Shuttleworth and other officials said there is no single answer to reducing troop suicides, a problem that has vexed every branch of the service, with record numbers being recorded in every branch.

“It is not whether we are at 32 for this year —- one suicide is too many,” Shuttleworth said.

At Camp Pendleton, 11 Marines at the base or assigned to a unit headquartered there took their own lives in 2011, according to statistics earlier provided to the North County Times.

The Marine Corps generally refuses to say where suicides occur and recently stopped reporting how troops took their own lives. Before the methodology component was removed, the overwhelming number of suicides were reported as being committed with privately owned firearms.

An examination of troop suicides between 2008 and 2010 showed that combat deployments and exposure to battlefield violence did not appear to be major factors in self-inflicted deaths, according to Shuttleworth.

Instead, family or relationship stress, along with legal or disciplinary issues and substance abuse, were determined to be the chief underlying causes.

But the results of a 2006-07 study of more than 1,500 Marines and sailors found that more than one in 10 who had served in combat reported having suicidal thoughts or plans within 30 days.

Risk factors

With the Marines Corps’ role in Afghanistan decreasing and the number of its troops there falling from a peak of about 21,000 to fewer than 7,000, officials warn of a possible surge in post-traumatic stress cases and suicidal behaviors.

Most suicides and post-traumatic stress cases emerge months after troops come home from deployments.

Adam Walsh, a clinical social worker in the Corps’ suicide prevention office, said troops who openly talk about death and dying or killing themselves are clearly at risk for suicide.

Other signs are expressions of hopelessness, illicit drug use and excessive drinking, and marked change in mood or behavior.

“We encourage people to really focus on knowing a Marine,” Walsh said. “Observing and tracking those kinds of changes is when someone should intervene and provide them help.”

The prevention office’s senior enlisted adviser, Master Gunnery Sgt. Phillip Bush, recently completed a worldwide tour of Marine Corps installations to deliver the message that it is OK to seek help and that there is no stigma attached to those who do so.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “We’re also doing everything we can to move our prevention efforts to further reduce any stigma. Seeking help needs to be seen as a sign of strength.”

Some of the latest outreach efforts include reaching out to Marine spouses and families for training in suicide prevention, Bush said.

Counselors at Camp Pendleton who work directly with Marines and sailors declined to be interviewed.

In a written statement about their work, the base said troops are continually reminded that psychological fitness is as important as being in shape physically.

“It is a duty, not an option, to seek help for oneself or for a fellow Marine in need,” the base said in the statement.

Too often, Marines trained in a warrior culture are reluctant to talk about issues that can lead to suicide. That’s shown in a Defense Department analysis of 2010 Marine Corps suicides: 80 percent of those who took their lives made “no known communication” that they were in distress.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon —- a Marine Corps veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and a captain in the reserve —- said last week that the suicide statistics are “tragic.”

“It’s absolutely troubling, but I don’t know how you fix it,” Hunter said. “It’s not like we’re not as tough as we used to be. I do think it is now absolutely OK to ask for help, but if people won’t reach out, I don’t know what you can do to help them.”

Court case

The Marine Corps recently prosecuted a former Camp Pendleton Marine for attempting suicide.

Former Pvt. Lazzaric Caldwell is now appealing his conviction for “self injury” after slitting his wrists in Okinawa in 2010 after a 2009 diagnosis of post-traumatic stress.

He pleaded guilty and was given a bad conduct discharge, which his military attorney later appealed.

The Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals let the conviction stand, ruling in essence that the attempt violated “good order and discipline.”

The case isn’t over, however. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the last resort in military courts before the U.S. Supreme Court, has agreed to review the conviction.

Caldwell’s attorney, Navy Lt. Mike Hanzel, argues that prosecution for self-injury among troops with diagnosed mental health issues is banned under military law because there is no way to prove intent.

Efforts to reach Hanzel were not immediately successful, but he told the Associated Press earlier this year that the difference between a suicide and his client’s case are stark.

“(If) you succeed in committing suicide, your service is treated honorably and your family receives full benefits,” Hanzel told the news service. “(If) you are unsuccessful in a genuine suicide attempt, you can receive a federal conviction and get a bad-conduct discharge and jail time, which is what happened to Pvt. Caldwell.”

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