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Military suicide on the rise

The rate of suicide among U.S. military personnel is on the rise. Defense officials say they are committing new resources to detecting and preventing suicidal behavior in soldiers, including those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But watchdogs and a recent government report suggest the Pentagon may not be doing enough to make sure at-riskpersonnel get treatment once they get home. One California lawmaker is pushing the military to do more. KPBS Capitol Hill reporter Benjamin Shaw has more.

Military officials say in the past several months that at least 11 soldiers and three Marines have committed suicide in Iraq. 88 active duty soldiers killed themselves in 2005, a number that was up 13 percent from 2003 and more than 70 percent from 2001.

Paul Rieckhoff executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America calls the figures alarming. And says an overstretched military and repeat tours of duty are taking a toll on soldiers.

Paul Rieckhoff : California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, a vocal critic of the Iraq War, helped pass a plan in the 2006 military authorization bill to create a mental health commission within the Defense Department.

The commissions first meeting is expected sometime in July.

The DOD has made changes in response to military suicides. Soldiers are screened for mental health issues before deployment and when they come home. In January, the Pentagon began using a third screening this one six months after soldiers' return from combat to look again for psychiatric problems.

Overall, suicides in the military are relatively rare says Dr. David Tornberg, a deputy assistant secretary of defense and chief medical officer of the military's TriCare health program. Tornberg points out that in 2005, the military's suicide rate was 11 per 100,000 while the rate in the general population was 19 per 100,000.

Tornberg: Returning soldiers and veterans can face difficulty readjusting to everyday life after the extraordinary violence of war. Family relationships can strain. Marriages often break up. And violent experiences can breed the anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and sleeplessness of post-traumatic stress disorder...or PTSD.

Tornberg says the military makes special efforts to educate returning soldiers to be on the lookout for PTSD symptoms. And he says help is available.

But there was evidence earlier this month to suggest the Defense Department is less than effective in referring soldiers for mental health care.

About 5 percent of soldiers who've fought in Iraq and Afghanistan met criteria for PTSD in a study by the Government Accountability Office. But only one in five of those soldiers were referred for treatment by military clinicians. The report also found different military branches vary widely in their referral practices.

The report's bottom line- the Pentagon cannot provide reasonable assurance that Afghanistan and Iraq service members who need referrals receive them.

Paul Reickoff calls the GAO results shameful.

Reickoff: Recruiting has been a challenge for the all volunteer force - relying on fewer soldiers to do more can exacerbate the problem. The Harford Courant recently reported that since 2003, the military has increasingly kept and recycled troops with mental illness into combat.

But Tornberg says that mental health care at the Defense the Department and at the Veterans Administration for former soldiers is still the most complete care available anywhere.

Walter Reed in Washington, DC is the premier Army medical center on the east coast. Boxer says that care in California is about to improve.

The senator says the DoD provided $7 million in 2006 for this Comprehensive Combat Casualty Care Center at the Navy Medical Center in Balboa Park.

The Center is expected to open this summer. From Capitol Hill, Benjamin Shaw, KPBS news.

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