WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army on Thursday said suicides among active duty troops in 2007 had reached the highest level on record, due partly to the stress caused by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Army announced that 115 soldiers, including 22 National Guard and Army Reserve troops, killed themselves last year. That marked a 12.7 percent rise from the 102 suicides recorded in 2006. There were 85 Army suicides in 2005.
It was the highest number of actual suicides in the military force since record-keeping began in 1980 and Army officials said the rate has remained at about the same level since, with 38 confirmed suicides recorded for 2008 as of last Monday.
The Army also said there were 935 suicide attempts in 2007.
Preliminary figures released in January had suggested the number of suicides in 2007 could reach 121.
Thirty-two suicides, or more than one-quarter of the actual 2007 total, occurred in Iraq as President George W. Bush poured extra forces into the country in an effort to quell sectarian violence. Another four occurred in Afghanistan.
Army officials said statistics did not show a direct link between repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and the rise in suicides.
But officials acknowledged that stresses caused by wartime Army operations were taking their toll on soldiers including in their personal relationships, the breakup of which was cited as a catalyst in 50 percent of cases.
“We see a lot of things that are going on in the war which do contribute,” said Army psychiatrist Col. Elspeth Ritchie.
She pointed specifically to long months away from home, the horrors of combat, the ready availability of loaded weapons and the high activity levels of current Army operations.
“All of those together we think are part of what may contribute, especially if somebody’s having difficulties already,” she said.
While 24 percent of cases occurred among soldiers sent to a combat theater for the first time, only 7 percent involved soldiers who had been deployed two or more times. Twenty-six percent had never been deployed.
Forty-three percent of suicides occurred after soldiers had returned to their home station.
But officials said the suicide rate for the Army remained below a civilian rate of 19.5 suicides per 100,000 people in the general population.
Army rate stood at 18.8 suicides per 100,000 regular active duty troops and at 16.8 per 100,000 when active duty National Guard and Reserve members were included in the total.
Not included in the statistics were 53 suicides last year among National Guardsmen and Reservists who were not on active duty.
Editing by Sandra Maler