Suicides dog US troops in Iraq

Suicides dog US troops in Iraq
by Benjamin Duncan in Washington, DC
Tuesday 09 December 2003 3:12 AM GMT

Depression seems to be the cause of most suicides among troops

Of the more than 450 US fatalities since the beginning of the war in Iraq, 20 have reportedly been suicides, or “self-inflicted” deaths, as the military prefers to call them.

While officials at the Pentagon say they are looking at these cases seriously, there is no evidence yet to suggest that the stress, fatigue and uncertainty associated with combat environments such as Iraq contribute to an abnormally high rate of suicides, health experts say.

Even so, the United States Army considered the situation disturbing enough to send Lt Col Jerry Swanner, its suicide-prevention programme manager to Iraq in late September as part of a 12-person Mental Health Advisory Team.

The group was to study the effects of combat stress and extended deployments on US troops. Findings from the study are yet to be released.

Virginia Stephanakis, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Army Surgeon-General and the Army Medical Command, said the issue of military suicides in Iraq was a matter of concern, but it “was not the primary reason” the advisory team was dispatched.


“It’s always looked at as a problem,” Stephanakis said. “Even if it’s just one, it’s one too many.”

The precise number of troops who have taken their own lives has not even been determined, with some ambiguous cases still under review.

Staying away from home for long is taking its toll

“We have some deaths that we’re not sure what the problem was,” Stephanakis said.

Of the 20 individuals who have committed suicide thus far, 18 were army soldiers and two were Marines, according to representatives from each branch.

With roughly 130,000 US troops stationed in Iraq, there was a likelihood of at least a few suicides, said Dr Thomas Hicklin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

“When you have a bunch of people you’re going to have some naturally-occurring suicides,” Hicklin said, adding that the current number of suicides in Iraq was in line with US suicide rates in the general population.


In fact, said Dr Carl Bell, a psychiatrist and suicide specialist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, “If you look at the suicide stats during any war, including Vietnam, and you look at civilian stats, there’s not a big difference.”

In addition to his academic duties, Hicklin is an Army colonel who was chief of a unit in Afghanistan that dealt with stress disorders among troops. Depression, he said, is the greatest contributing factor in suicide cases overall, the military included.

The fact that some troops stationed in combat zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan for long periods of time would suffer from depression is practically unavoidable, he added.

“There’s some naturally-occurring depression that people feel when they’re away from home and in an austere environment ... plus they’re in the heat of the desert and there are some who are prone to depression,” he said.

An Army spokesperson told that, as of 8 December 601 soldiers had been medically evacuated from Iraq for behavioural health reasons.

Meanwhile, 42 soldiers had also been evacuated from Afghanistan for similar causes.

A soldier who enters a combat environment with an underlying emotional disorder could be more susceptible to the dangers of depression, Bell said.

No simple relationship between
war, depression and suicide

“What you’ve got are people with the proclivity to be depressed,” he said. “You put them in a toxic situation like a war and their proclivity manifests.”

However, that does not necessarily indicate a causal relationship between war, depression and suicide, he said.

“The vast majority of [troops suffering from depression] will not commit suicide,” he said. “That’s the problem, it doesn’t work that way. Suicide is a very complex thing to study.”

Problems with personal relationships, unrelated to military service, are the most frequent cause of suicides in the Army in war and peacetime, said Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman.

Stress factor

“That’s overwhelmingly the most common cause, the trigger of suicides in the Army: the loss of a significant relationship,” Rudd said.

Most mental health experts dismissed the so-called stress factor.

Although the situation in Iraq is fraught with danger, unpredictability and high-stress activities for US troops, many of whom are serving longer tours of duty than were originally anticipated, Bell said stress did not not play a major role in military suicides.

“When soldiers are in the thick of a fight, they don’t have time to dwell on their problems"

Martha Rudd,
spokeswoman, US Army

“The likelihood that what you’re getting is stress-induced is low and it’s low because the military has an extremely good handle on this kind of stuff,” he said.

Rudd said the Army tried to make sure that every soldier in the field had access to a chaplain or a psychiatrist if they needed one. One of the things the mental health team tried to assess in Iraq was “how the resources were distributed,” she said.

Ironically, Rudd said most of the suicides in Iraq occurred after 1 May, when President Bush announced the end of major combat operations, leading some to the conclusion that post-combat peacekeeping situations was when the troops were most at risk from killing themselves.

“When soldiers are in the thick of a fight, they don’t have time to dwell on their problems,” Rudd said.

Because the individual cases are still under review, neither the Army nor the Marine Corp are offering any details on the 20 reported instances of suicide in Iraq thus far.

But Bell said confusion about the circumstances was part of the problem for non-military experts trying to examine the situation.

“I don’t think we really have enough information about what’s going on over there to know what the hell is happening,” he said.

By Benjamin Duncan in Washington, DC

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Good riddance to a bad, sad year

December 29, 2003

In 2003 the US flexed its imperial muscles and Australia showed its cruel side, writes Robert Manne.

From the political point of view, 2003 was dominated by the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, in which Australia was intimately involved. Almost everything about this invasion was unsettling and strange.

The Anglophone democracies invaded Iraq on the legal basis of certain United Nations Security Council resolutions, despite the fact that in regard to the invasion the Security Council was unambiguously opposed. The invasion was mounted in order to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, which appeared not to exist. When the weapons could not be found, the occupying powers began to argue that their non-discovery was of no great consequence, as the real purpose of the invasion had been to remove a monstrous tyrant from power.

In 2002 the United States had revolutionised international law by arguing that preventive wars could justly be waged against "rogue states" possessing WMD. In 2003, when a rogue state was invaded but no WMD were found, international law was revolutionised a second time, with the claim that the US and its allies had the right to go to war, not in self-defence and as a last resort, but to rid the world of tyrants and to introduce democracy.

In 2003 the Americans began acting in the international arena in whatever way they pleased. As Owen Harries pointed out in his excellent Boyer Lectures, it is in a genuinely new historical era, of US hegemony, that we must now learn to live.

While it proved relatively easy to remove Saddam Hussein, to introduce even the foundations of democracy proved a considerably more difficult task. With the abolition of the Iraqi army and police force, law and order simply broke down. Largely because of robbery, rape and murder, 94 per cent of Iraqis surveyed said they now felt less secure than they had under the gruesome regime of Saddam.

Iraq had no democratic traditions on which to draw. In addition, it was divided between secular and religious segments of society; between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam; and between an Arab majority and a long-repressed Kurdish minority. No form of government is more difficult to create than a federal system of democracy for a people divided on religious and ethnic lines. Impoverished and occupied Iraq is now expected to succeed in such an impossible task.

By the end of 2003, what was always obvious to common sense became clear, namely that the plan to create a model Western-style democracy in Iraq was little more than a fantasy of the neo-conservative imagination.

Next year it seems likely that the US will begin to withdraw troops prematurely from Iraq, in order to help the re-election of President George Bush. If the Iraqis are lucky, a relatively benevolent dictatorship, most likely led by a Shia strongman, might emerge. If they are unlucky, Iraq will begin to descend into disorder of a fearsome kind.

From the Australian perspective, one of the most intriguing questions of 2003 is why the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq caused so many political headaches for Tony Blair and even George Bush but left John Howard untouched. One obvious explanation is the lack of Australian casualties. Another is the success of Howard's hints that the intelligence deceptions on which the war was based were the entire responsibility of our great and powerful friends. Yet another is the present supineness of parts of the Australian media, with the successful intimidation of the ABC and the Murdoch stranglehold over the tabloid press. Most important, however, is the fact that for the greater part of 2003 Australia remained a country without an effective Opposition.

Towards the end of the year, this finally changed. Mark Latham is probably the most right-wing leader the ALP has ever had. On economic questions he is a low tax, neo-liberal. On political questions he has shown consistent contempt for the values of the inner suburban chardonnay socialist set. Yet to the Howard Government, Latham might prove a genuine threat.

Because of his youth and vibrancy, Latham has made the Prime Minister, quite suddenly, seem old. He has the ability to interest ordinary Australians in a way Simon Crean never had. Latham's larrikinism and his bad language amuses people; it will probably be forgiven if he can convince them he has consigned these habits to the past.

After two years no one knew what Crean stood for. Already, because of his self-dramatising capacity, everyone knows Latham hopes to provide opportunities for less affluent Australians. As the next election is likely to be decided in the poorer outer suburban or country town electorates where Hansonism was once strong, the prospect of a Latham Labor government in 2004 is slim but real.

For me, 2003 has been overshadowed by the continuing cruel and purposeless Howard Government treatment of the 10,000 or so unfortunate beings who, between 1999 and 2001, sought refuge in Australia from the tyrannies of Saddam or the Taliban or from the Iranian theocratic state.

A little under 9000 of these people, found to be genuine refugees, are now being asked to prove for a second time their protection needs. If they fail, most face deportation to the chaos and the danger of post-invasion Afghanistan or Iraq.

Hundreds of those whose asylum claims, for one reason or another, originally failed, but who are simply too frightened to return to their homelands, have now been languishing in Australia's detention prisons for several years. A further 300 or so asylum seekers have spent the past two years in hell, imprisoned in the tropical detention camp on Nauru. Among the detainees in Australia and Nauru are more than 200 children, whose lives have slowly been destroyed.

The mercilessness of the Howard Government policy has been revealed by two brutally frank judicial comments in recent weeks. In the High Court, the Solicitor-General, David Bennett, QC, said there was no reason in law why asylum seekers might not be detained "until hell freezes over" - that is to say, for the rest of their lives. In the same court, Justice McHugh pointed out that there was no legal impediment to the repatriation of asylum seekers even to certain death.

In Australian history the disconnect between law and justice has rarely been stated with such little embarrassment.

Of all Western societies, Australia is now almost alone in having no asylum claims from unauthorised arrivals. Since Tampa, there has been no asylum seeker "problem" here. By offering permanent homes to refugees on temporary visas and to those presently indefinitely detained in Australia or on Nauru, absolutely nothing would be lost, but 10,000 lives would be redeemed. Surely for 2004 this is not too extravagant a hope.

Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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The fools amongst us
12/26/2003 -
By: Hesham A. Hassaballa, M.D
Iviews* -

Yet again, the government raised the terror threat level to Orange, or "High Risk of Terrorist Attack." This decision was based on an increased level of "chatter" among suspected terrorists, credible intelligence from human informants, and information gleaned from the interrogation of captured terrorist suspects. Although this has been done before, I was more worried this time around. As I was listening to the news about the government's decision, I reached down into the depths of my soul and prayed to God: "Lord, please do not destroy us by the actions of the fools amongst us."

This prayer was borne of a feeling of sheer helplessness. I know the government is doing all it can to protect the homeland, including recently grounding six planes that were due to fly to the United States from France. Nevertheless, the government can not guarantee that the United States will not be attacked, and so I prayed.

I made this prayer--"Lord, do not destroy us by the actions of the fools amongst us"--as both a Muslim and an American. As a Muslim, I prayed to God for protection from the actions of the terrorist fools amongst us. These people have no shame, no heart, no respect for human life. The use the garment of Islam to cloak their cult of murder. With each terrorist attack, they further damage the image of Islam and smear all Muslims with the putrid stain of their murderous actions. The fact that these monsters saw the attacks of September 11 as a "victory" for Islam serves to expose their utter foolishness. And so I prayed.

As an American, I prayed that God does not cause America to be destroyed by the actions of her Administration. I am not calling President Bush or anyone else in his administration a fool. Nevertheless, some of the foreign policy decisions have been seriously misguided, if not downright foolish. The war in Iraq is a prime example. With each passing day, more American soldiers are killed, more Iraqis join the resistance movement--despite Saddam Hussein's capture--and more precious taxpayer money is required to keep the peace. All this and weapons of mass destruction still have not been--and probably never will be--found. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fester, further poisoning the Holy Land with the blood of innocents and tarnishing the image of the United States across the world. Adding insult to injury, the war in Iraq has increased the risk of terrorist attacks against Americans while alienating long-time allies because of America's arrogant unilateralism. And so I prayed.

I prayed hard, in fact, because the specter of another terrorist attack on American soil worries me deeply. It goes without saying that the loss of any innocent life would be a profound tragedy for humanity. But the other repercussions of a terrorist attack are also of deep concern. First of all, in the event of another September 11-like attack, I truly fear the possibility of Arab and Muslim Americans being interned in camps like the Japanese during World War II. After all, Korematsu vs. United States, the famous Supreme Court decision which upheld the internment of Japanese Americans, has technically never been overturned by the Supreme Court. The economy, which still has some weakness despite recent gains, would collapse and be left in utter shambles. What's more, it is quite likely that Congress would pass an even more "Patriotic" Act that would strip away even more of our precious civil liberties. And so I pray. I pray that God does not destroy us by the actions of the fools amongst us. It may not seem like a lot, but it is the only thing I have the power to do. And never underestimate the power of prayer.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for the Independent Writers Syndicate. He is author of "Why I Love the Ten Commandments," published in the Book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith (Rodale).


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