CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- They have been in harm's way for years in two countries, in a branch of the military where toughness and self-reliance have been especially prized for generations. Now the Marines are struggling against an enemy that has entrenched itself over nearly a decade of war: mental illness.
Marines stressed from repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking help like never before, and their suicide rate is the highest in the military after doubling in just the past three years. Even with more mental-health professionals sent to bases to help, they have had trouble keeping up with demand.
There have been times when staff at Camp Lejeune's base hospital faced a choice of either staying with a Marine through lengthy treatment or leaving a case midstream to be able to keep up with the deluge of new patients.
"We couldn't see people as frequently as we wanted to and to see them as much as we wanted to would mean not getting another Marine an initial evaluation," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Webster, the hospital's head of mental health.
More than 1,100 members of the armed forces killed themselves from 2005 to 2009, and suicides have been on the rise again this year. The sharpest increases have been in the Army and Marine Corps, the services most stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One 23-year-old Marine recently treated for post traumatic stress disorder at Camp Lejeune said he felt processed by the system rather than properly treated. The Marine, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that after his diagnosis he was relegated to short appointments during which mental health specialists did little more than check his dosages.
"They just threw a bunch of pills at me," he said.
Mike Sloan, a California veteran who counsels troubled Marines, said commanders should be doing more to reach out to Marines in trouble and get them help. He said the military still faces a huge challenge in changing a mindset that encourages troops to be tough and handle problems on their own.
"We people don't listen in the armed forces," said Sloan, who helped start a nonprofit veterans group in Oceanside, Calif., a community that borders Camp Pendleton. "I am positive combat stress and PTSD are caused by leadership failures."
A report ordered by Congress last year and sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday said the service branches' prevention programs are inefficient. The 14-member panel of military and civilian doctors recommended dozens of changes, including the creation of a high-level office to set strategy and coordinate prevention programs across branches.