By Charles Aldinger
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least 21 U.S. troops have committed suicide in Iraq, a growing toll that represents one in seven of American "non-hostile" deaths since the war began last March, the Pentagon's top health official said on Wednesday.
"Fighting this kind of war is clearly going to be stressful for some people," Assistant Defense Secretary for Health Affairs Dr. William Winkenwerder told reporters in an interview.
"There have been about 21 confirmed suicides during the past year associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom," Winkenwerder said, adding that 18 were Army troops and three others were in the Navy and Marine Corps.
The suicide toll is probably higher than 21, he added, because some "pending" non-hostile deaths are being investigated.
A total of 496 U.S. troops have been killed since the war began last March, 343 of them in combat and 153 in non-hostile incidents ranging from accidents to suicide, the Pentagon said.
The 21 suicides represent nearly 14 percent of non-hostile deaths reported by the Pentagon, an increase over the proportion of 11 percent as of three months ago when the suicide number totaled 13.
Winkenwerder said the military was concerned over the suicides and was moving to deal with "battle stress" and other emotional problems triggered by armed conflict.
He did not provide any suicide rates for past U.S. conflicts but suggested that problems such as the domestic killings involving soldiers who returned to their base in North Carolina from Afghanistan in 2002 had prompted the Army to be more aware of stress.
Authorities say four soldiers at Fort Bragg killed their wives in June and July of 2002. Three of the cases involved Special Operations soldiers returning from Afghanistan. Two of the soldiers committed suicide and the other two were charged with murder. A fifth case involved a Special Forces major who was killed, with his wife charged with murder.
A November 2002 Army report concluded that the stress put on military families by frequent separations as the soldiers trained and fought may have contributed to the killings.
The military's responses to stress problems now include toll-free telephone numbers for troops to call for help as well as an increased number of military psychiatric specialists in Iraq to deal with problems before they become critical.
"Are those individuals who need (stress) support getting it? Are they being identified?," Winkenwerder asked. "We believe 'yes."'
"We don't see any trend there that tells us that there's more we might be doing," Winkenwerder said, noting that between 300 and 400 troops had been evacuated from Iraq for stress-related problems.
The U.S. military strength in Iraq currently stands at about 123,000.
Winkenwerder also said emergency military medical teams stationed in Iraq, combined with new body armor and other protective devices, had resulted in a sharply lower death rate among wounded soldiers compared to past wars.
In addition to the death toll, more than 2,400 troops have been wounded in Iraq since the war began.
"Clearly the body armor helps" in saving lives, Winkenwerder said, but added that emergency medical teams were a key factor in preventing death from blood loss in the "golden hour" after a soldier was wounded.