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February 5, 2013

Military scrambles to stop suicides

METHUEN, Mass. — A combat veteran’s suicide in this city on Jan. 15 shows the challenge the military faces as men and women return home from extended tours of duty.

The sergeant first class was an active duty member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. He was 50 years old and married with two children. He was a veteran of two combat tours.

National Guard officials did not return calls seeking details about his service, but the sergeant's case illustrates at least two reasons why veterans advocates say suicide rates are increasing among returning service members:

More are serving multiple combat tours, and the heavy use of reservists means more leave behind spouses and children when they serve overseas.

At the same time, the military's mental health services are overwhelmed.

“It’s becoming obvious to everyone we’re in a crisis mode here,” said Linda Dean Campbell, a state representative from Methuen who served in the Army, along with her husband. “The current statistics are unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for us as a nation, and we need to move quicker to address this crisis.”

Earlier this month, the Associated Press obtained figures from the U.S. Department of Defense showing 349 active duty military personnel committed suicide last year, the highest number since the Pentagon started closely keeping track in 2001. By comparison, 313 Americans died last year in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon.

The number of military suicides has spiked since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, when the Pentagon reported 160 military suicides, and Iraq in 2003.

Defense officials have struggled to deal with the suicides, which outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have called an epidemic.

Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, said the suicide rate is "staggering." She said she has introduced bills to train college counselors to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder and require reporting from the Department of Veterans Affairs on mental health vacancies.

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