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One every 18 hours: Military suicide rate still high despite hard fight to stem deaths

Amid a raft of Pentagon initiatives to slow its suicide crisis, a new Army report Thursday showed the pace of self-inflicted deaths among soldiers — and all service members — has barely budged so far this year from the record rate the military suffered during 2012. 

Through April, the U.S. military has recorded 161 potential suicides in 2013 among active-duty troops, reservists and National Guard members — a pace of one suicide about every 18 hours. The Army, the largest contingent of the armed forces, sustained 109 reported suicides during the first four months, according its latest report.

Last year, when self-inflicted military deaths outstripped the number of troops killed in combat, there was one suicide every 17 hours among all active-duty, reserve and National Guard members, according to figures gathered from each branch. 

"We are still continuing to fight this problem with the same intensiveness," said Cynthia O. Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. "We are still focused on preventing suicides from occurring in the Department of Defense. We are doing everything we can to ensure that service members are getting the proper health care they need to prevent this type of event from happening. 

"It concerns us deeply." 

The number of suicides the military has suffered in recent years has brought new initiatives and programs aimed at stemming the epidemic. But advocates fear the rate will climb in coming years as more troops are drawn down in Afghanistan.

And research published last week has experts concerned that American troops who survived multiple nearby IED blasts while in Afghanistan and Iraq now are at greater jeopardy for harming themselves.

People who have suffered numerous mild traumatic brain injuries — or concussions — carry a higher suicide risk, according to the first study to make that connection

"We’re starting to see now: It’s the build up, it’s the accumulation of brain injuries that increases the risk for suicide,” said Craig Bryan, the study’s lead author, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah, and associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies.

The research team made that correlation by surveying 161 troops who served in Iraq, were evaluated for TBIs — some reporting as many as 15 — and who acknowledged later enduring suicidal thoughts or behaviors, according to the study, published last week in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Courtesy of Jeremy Lattimer

Marine Sgt. Jeremy Lattimer, far left, stands with members of his squad in Iraq. Lattimer received a mild TBI from an IED blast. He has not struggled with suicidal thoughts but he is working through the symptoms of his TBI at a military hospital.

One in five surveyed veterans who had sustained more than one TBI also experienced thoughts about — or preoccupation with — suicide, the study found. For patients who received one TBI, 6.9 percent reported having suicidal thoughts. And the soldiers surveyed who never were diagnosed with a TBI reported no suicidal ideations, the study showed.

Marine Sgt. Jeremy Lattimer, 26, who earned a Bronze Star for his 2009 actions in Afghanistan, can count at least three concussions he’s sustained through sports and combat — moments when he briefly lost consciousness. 

Military doctors believe he sustained a mild TBI in 2005 during an IED detonation. Six years later, he developed speaking, hearing and sleep problems often affiliated with mild brain injuries. A brain scan later confirmed that Lattimer had suffered a past TBI, he said.

But some of “the biggest blasts” that he and his fellow unit members experienced in combat came from their own outgoing rockets, added Lattimer, an outpatient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he’s receiving TBI treatment and therapy.

Courtesy Jeremy Lattimer

Marine Sgt. Jeremy Lattimer, right, receives the Bronze Star in 2011. He earned the award for his 2009 actions in Afghanistan: While under machine gun fire, he maneuvered his squad in a position to help other troops escape an enemy ambush.

“They put out a tremendous blast wave. One (firing episode) was close enough to ring my bell more intensely than the IEDs that went off in my vicinity,” Lattimer said. “To get back into my train of thought, to read my GPS, it took a minute or two before my brain kicked back in. It’s like you’re in a daze.”

The Pentagon’s own tally shows 266,810 service members received a traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and 2012. More than 80 percent of those TBIs were not deployment-related cases. Many occurred amid crashes of privately owned cars and military vehicles. 

In March, more than 50 members of Congress formally asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to investigate whether mild TBIs sustained in American troops may be fueling the military’s suicide crisis.