Suicide rates in the US Army have soared over the past three years, hitting levels not seen in more than a quarter century, army data released Thursday show.
Army officials attributed the disturbing rise in suicides to strains in soldiers' marriages and other relationships as deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan lengthen and multiply.
"I think it's a marker of the stress on the force," said Colonel Elsbeth Ritchie, psychiatric consultant to the army's surgeon general, observing "Families are tired."
Data released by the army show the numbers of suicides and attempted suicides spiked in 2006 after climbing steadily in the wake of US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to the figures, more than 2,000 soldiers tried to take their own lives or injure themselves in 2006, compared to about 375 in 2002.
In 2006, 102 active duty soldiers committed suicide, almost double the number in 2001, the data show.
The figures indicate that the number of suicides were even higher in 2007, with 89 confirmed suicides and another 32 deaths awaiting confirmation as suicides.
The suicide rate per 100,000 soldiers in the active duty army spiked to 17.5 by the end of 2006, up from 12.8 at the start of the year.
While that remains slightly below the suicide rate for a comparable slice of the general population, it is well above suicide rates that have prevailed in the US Army since 1980, when the service began tracking them in detail.
The army's previous high was 15.8 per 100,000 in the mid-1980s.
"We are perturbed by the rise despite all of our efforts," said Ritchie.
Ritchie was part of a team that reviewed suicide prevention efforts in Iraq in October after Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno raised concerned about suicides among deployed soldiers.
She said they found most suicides involved relationship difficulties; a smaller percentage stemmed from legal, financial or occupational problems.
"That has been true for a long time," she said. "But when people are carrying loaded weapons, often these would come without warning.
"Somebody would get an email from a spouse, saying, 'I want a divorce' and then would shoot themselves," she said.
Suicide incident reports, which track motives, indicate that people do not commit suicide as a direct result combat, she said.
"But the frequent deployments strain relationships. And strained relationships and divorces are definitely related to increase suicide," she said.
"The other issue is post-traumatic stress disorder, and historically post-traumatic stress disorder is associated with strained relationships, with substance abuse, so there can be in some cases a cascade," she said.
Dennis Dingle, an army official responsible for the well being of the force, said relatively few suicides occur among deployed troops. Most were among soldiers who had been back for more than a year.
Of 102 suicides of active duty soldiers in 2006, 72 were not deployed; 27 were deployed in Iraq; three in Afghanistan.
Most suicides are young males between the ages of 18 and 24, but the army experts are also starting to see higher numbers of suicides among older soldiers and females.
Ritchie said 11 female soldiers killed themselves in 2006. "That's the highest number of females we've ever seen," she said.