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The enemy within: Soldier suicides outpaced combat deaths in 2012

More soldiers took their own lives than died in combat during 2012, new Department of Defense figures show. The Army's suicide rate has climbed by 9 percent since the military branch launched its suicide-prevention campaign in 2009.

Through November, 177 active-duty soldiers had committed suicide compared to 165 during all of 2011 and 156 in 2010. In all of 2012, 176 soldiers were killed in action -- all while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, according to DOD.

Army suicides have increased by at least 54 percent since 2007 when there were 115 — a number the Washington Post then called "an all-time record." An Army spokesman said Wednesday it is uncertain if 177 marks a new annual high (with December numbers still to come), or if suicides have ever outpaced combat deaths in a single year, because the Army has not always tracked suicides.

Some Army families who recently lost members to suicide criticize the branch for failing to aggressively shake a culture in which soldiers believe they'll be deemed weak and denied promotion if they seek mental health aid. They also blame Army leaders for focusing more heavily on weeding out  emotionally troubled soldiers to artificially suppress the branch's suicide stats versus embracing and helping members who are exhibiting clear signs of trouble.

Furthermore, in September, two U.S. lawmakers pressured the Pentagon to immediately use unspent money specifically appropriated to the agency to help slow the suicides within the military. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, also pushed for increased anti-suicide funding for the Department of Defense in 2013.

“The Pentagon hasn’t spent the money that it has for suicide prevention for this year — and that money wasn’t nearly enough money to reach all the soldiers who need help. Now we are hearing about bureaucratic technicalities at the Pentagon that are preventing them from acting. This is unconscionable,” Rep. McDermott said. “The Pentagon is funded to help soldiers and needs to do much more on the epidemic of suicides."  

But the Department of Defense contends that anti-suicide programs installed throughout the armed services soon will curb military suicides — and that such initiatives already have helped douse mental-health stigmas.

"We have seen several programs that we are optimistic are going to start making a dent in this issue," said Jackie Garrick, acting director of the DOD suicide prevention office. "We’ve asked all of the services to use the same messaging, the same talking points. So the Army, included in that, is trying to adapt and promote those same messages because we realize that this is an across-the-board problem."

The Army could not provide a suicide-prevention officer to comment, but an Army spokeswoman did forward NBC News a link to the “Army Suicide Prevention Program.”

Within that initiative, soldiers are taught to “Ask, Care, and Escort” any Army buddy who mentions considering suicide, to usher them to behavioral-health provider, chaplain, or a primary-care provider, and to “never leave your friend alone." The U.S. military also installed a prevention “lifeline:” 1-800-273-TALK.

What's more, soldiers are assured that seeking mental-health counseling will not harm their chances at gaining a security clearance. And on that website, a video shows Sgt. Maj. Raymond F. Chandler III, the Army's top non-commissioned officer, speaking to other NCOs: “Know your soldiers. Know the resources available to them when they are in crisis ... Encourage your soldiers to seek help ... Seeking help is a sign of courage.”

The anti-suicide strategy was rolled out in April 2009 by Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli.

In July 2010, the Army released a report that sought to explain its suicide epidemic. Some Army families were irked by one of the key findings: Loosened recruitment and retention standards — due to the furious pace of repeated deployments — had allowed more than 47,000 people to remain in the Army despite histories of substance abuse, misdemeanor crime or “serious misconduct.”

Chiarelli further frustrated many Army families who had lost members to suicide when, amid the release of that same report, he added: “I think it’s fair to say in some instances it would be a soldier that’s possibly married, couple of kids, lost his job, no health care insurance, possibly a single parent.” Those types of soldiers, he added, are “coming in the Army to start all over again, and we see this high rate of suicide.”

Two days before Charielli’s comments, 28-year-old Army soldier Brandon Barrett showed up at his parents' home in Tucson, Ariz. The family believed he was on leave following a brutal, year-long deployment in Afghanistan with the 5th Stryker Brigade during which he saw several buddies killed or wounded by bombs and did some killing himself.

During that visit, Barrett’s family thought his Army experience seemed to be helping him to mature, recalls his brother, Shane Barrett, a detective with the Tucson Police Department.

In August, Brandon Barrett left his parents’ home and drove — for unknown reasons — to Salt Lake City where he donned his combat fatigues, boots and helmet, grabbed his AR-15 rifle, went to a hotel and told an employee to call the police. As he waited for the officers, Barrett paced the hotel parking lot as if he was on patrol, a hotel video showed. A police officer arrived. Barrett shot him in the leg. The officer returned fire and killed Barrett with a bullet to the head. His family believes Barrett intended to commit “suicide by cop,” his brother acknowledged. 

Courtesy Barrett family

Brandon Barrett confided to a chaplain within his unit, the Barrett family learned since his death, revealing that his year of combat in Afghanistan had left him depressed and anxious.

“He’d been home for nearly a month,” Shane Barrett told NBC News. “We had no contact from anybody in the Army until my brother’s incident. And then, after the fact, it was: ‘Your brother was AWOL (absent without leave).’ Really? We didn’t know that.

“If a guy goes AWOL, the Army is supposed to notify the family immediately. We never received phone calls, letters. We were blindsided. At the police department where I work, they ran all kinds of record checks on him. But they found absolutely nothing (about an AWOL report).

“My mother has always believed he was declared AWOL after the fact just so the Army could get him off the rolls and not have his suicide count against the Army,” Shane Barrett said. “To just discard him, like he never existed, is just wrong. And there’s no paper trail, no nothing to back up the AWOL claim.”

The Barrett family later learned that Brandon had confided to a chaplain within his unit, revealing that his year of combat in Afghanistan had left him depressed and anxious. And possibly mulling suicide.

“From talking to a couple of other guys in his unit, he didn’t want to come forward (to seek mental-health help) because you’d be red-flagged. It would be your exit out of the Army,” Shane Barrett said. “The guys in the Army are just flat-out afraid to come forward.”

At the Department of Defense, anti-suicide chief Garrick was asked if the Army is indeed clinging to a culture of “suck it up" and handle your own problems,” as some Army families contend.

“No, I think all of the services have done a pretty good job of trying to get a message out. The Army ... they’ve done the 'shoulder-to-shoulder,' (approach, and have said) ‘no soldier stands alone.' That’s been some of their messaging, now going back a while,” Garrick said.

“The Secretary of Defense (Leon Panetta), this past year, issued a statement talking about how our service members are our most valuable resource and that we need to do everything we can to take care of our people. So we’re doing everything we can to prevent suicides in the military, recognizing that it’s a complex and urgent problem.”

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