WASHINGTON -- A Defense Department task force devoted to preventing suicide in the military presented a grim picture of the trend Tuesday, with suicides rising at a near steady pace even as commanders apply various balms to soothe a stressed, exhausted fighting force.
The military has nearly 900 suicide prevention programs across 400 military installations worldwide, but in a report released Tuesday, the task force describes the Defense Department's approach as a safety net riddled with holes.
Last year, 309 men and women slipped through.
In 2008, 267 service members committed suicide. In 2007, the number was 224.
However, the task force also gave a message of hope: Prevention efforts can work, members said, and suicidal behavior after combat deployment isn't normal. "Having any of our nation's warriors die by suicide is not acceptable -- not now, not ever," said Army Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe, a physician and co-chairman of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces.
Among the task force's findings:
--The military doesn't have enough behavioral specialists and suicide prevention officers, and that those it has need better training.
--Suicide prevention programs aren't streamlined across services.
--Service members still encounter discriminatory and humiliating experiences when seeking psychiatric help.
--Unit-level leaders especially struggle with how to assist the men and women under their guidance.
The numbers of suicides have increased almost steadily since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, and task force members said Tuesday they were unable to pinpoint exactly why the trend continues despite prevention work being done so far.
But the task force found much to be concerned about. Volpe described a "supply-and-demand mismatch" that hurts a service member's ability to spend enough time back home to become re-engaged with the community and their personal lives.
The report suggests either growing the size of the military or reducing mission demand. It also suggests establishing a policy office under the secretary of defense to streamline suicide prevention programs.
The report also recommends working more closely with military family members and improving communications between unit-level leaders and the men and women under their care.