The suicide rate is many times higher among than the regular population. It looks like vets of our latest wars may share this dubious distintion. It is sad.
Wreath for Those Killed, Even at Their Own Hands**
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON, June 2 - On Monday, in a Memorial Day ritual, President Bush laid a wreath honoring the nation’s war dead in Arlington National Cemetery. Then Liz Sweet got her turn.
Accompanied by a military honor guard, she helped lay a wreath honoring soldiers killed in Iraq, including her 23-year-old son, T. J. His photograph hung below the wreath on a ribbon Mrs. Sweet had fashioned in red, white and blue, a rare public tribute to a soldier who took his own life.
Although military officials were not asked for approval, Mrs. Sweet and a veterans’ advocate wanted to recognize the sacrifice of soldiers who committed suicide.
For their families, the loss can be especially excruciating. “Not only did your child go off to a combat zone,” Mrs. Sweet said. “Not only did your child lose his life. But something happened that you will never, ever understand.”
One of the questions that haunts her is whether her son’s suicide could have been prevented. In a required predeployment health questionnaire in August 2003, T. J. - it stands for Thomas John - reported that he had sought mental health treatment during the previous year.
Such an answer should have triggered a referral for further evaluation, Army officials say. But under “Referral Indicated,” an Army physician’s assistant had marked “None,” and declared Specialist Sweet “deployable.”
“The system failed,” said Mrs. Sweet, a 53-year-old mental health administrator who works near Washington and lives in Frederick, Md. She has written to military officials in search of answers, receiving letters of consolation that leave her unsatisfied.
According to the Pentagon, 40 soldiers in Iraq and seven others in Afghanistan have killed themselves, and 21 marines have committed suicide either in the region or while on active duty in the United States.
The numbers do not include suicides that occurred after discharge. Veterans’ advocates have identified more than 30 such cases from news accounts but say the total may be considerably higher.
Some military health experts say they believe the surreptitious threat from suicide bombers and snipers in Iraq is even more stressful than open combat. Through the end of April, 1,118 Army men and women had been evacuated from Iraq for psychiatric reasons, according to official statistics.
Through February, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 12,020 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The wording on the wreath that Mrs. Sweet helped set in front of the marble Tomb of the Unknowns made subtle note of those who died at their own hand at home after discharge.
“In Memory of Those Who Served and Died in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gulf and Home,” said the inscription, prepared by Mrs. Sweet and Stephen L. Robinson, the director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, an advocacy group for veterans of recent wars.
Mr. Robinson, a former ranger who wrote a report on the mental health problems of soldiers in Iraq, has become an informal counselor to some families of suicides. He invited Mrs. Sweet to present his group’s wreath on Monday.
“This, too, is part of the cost of war,” Mr. Robinson said. He said he was not aware of any previous occasion when a soldier who died by suicide was singled out in the Memorial Day observances at the Arlington cemetery.
The suicide of T. J. Sweet II came on Thanksgiving Day in 2003, just minutes after an angry exchange with a superior as the young Army specialist rushed to find parts for a .50-caliber machine gun and begin guard duty. He was ordered to do five pushups and told he was being taken off the promotion list, his mother said.
The promotion was especially important because Specialist Sweet had vowed to outrank his father, Tom, a retired teacher who served in Vietnam. Army investigators found that Specialist Sweet had shot himself with his M-16 rifle.
Growing up in Bismarck, N.D., where his parents lived until recently, Specialist Sweet had no history of mental illness, his mother said in an interview. On her blouse she wore her son’s unit crest, with the slogan, “Faithful and True,” and a tiny framed portrait of her son in uniform. But there had been hints of trouble, she said.
After basic training in 1999, Specialist Sweet was assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., and had difficulty sleeping. He went to a clinic and was given a diagnosis of “generalized anxiety disorder” but no medication.
When he was preparing to leave for Iraq, he told his parents he was eager to try out his skills. But having been trained as an artilleryman, he said he feared he would make a poor infantryman. In a letter from Iraq shortly before his death, his mother said, Specialist Sweet asked if his parents could immediately send him some Ritalin, a drug he had taken in childhood for attention deficit disorder.
“They were working 18-hour shifts and couldn’t take showers,” Mrs. Sweet said. Her son described sandstorms that resembled the whiteout blizzards of North Dakota.
But she said she had no idea of the degree of his distress, Mrs. Sweet said, until an Army officer knocked on the door as her family prepared to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, bringing the worst imaginable news.
Specialist Sweet was promoted, to sergeant, after all, his mother said, a decision made by his Army superiors after his funeral back home in Bismarck.