Why isn't the press on a suicide watch?

by Greg Mitchell, Editor and Publisher

Would it surprise you to learn that according to official Pentagon figures, at least 118 U.S. military personnel in Iraq have committed suicide since April 2003? That number does not include many unconfirmed reports, or those who served in the war and then killed themselves at home (a sizable, if uncharted, number).

While troops who have died in "hostile action" -- and those gravely injured and rehabbing at Walter Reed and other hospitals -- have gained much wider media attention in recent years, the suicides (about 3% of our overall Iraq death toll) remain in the shadows.

For whatever reason, I have always found soldiers who take their own lives especially tragic, though some might argue the opposite. Since the beginning of the war, I have written numerous columns on self-inflicted deaths, from average grunts to Col. Ted Westhusing (angry about contractor abuses), Alyssa Peterson (appalled by interrogation techniques) and Linda Michel (denied medication after returning home). But generally, the suicides get very little local or national attention.

In a sense, the press doesn't know what to do about them. Did they serve their country well, but ultimately let it down? Or is their country fully responsible for putting them in a suicide-producing situation in the first place and has blood on its hands?

One recent case illustrates some of the issues. The Pentagon revealed the death, joining more than 3,650 others, on July 5 in one of its pithy releases: "Pfc. Andrew T. Engstrom, 22, of Slaton, Texas, died July 4 in Taji, Iraq, from injuries suffered in a non-combat related incident. His death is under investigation."

Investigations can last months, but this time Engstrom's parents were told the truth very quickly (this is not always the case). Families, for multiple reasons no doubt, often try to hide suicides from the press and public. We are usually informed that the death was "non-hostile," which also covers the many killed in vehicle or gun accidents. But in this case, a reporter for The Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal, Marlena Hartz, learned from Engstrom's fiance -- and a family friend that his parents had been told he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound "in the head."

A local radio station published a couple of heartbreaking photos of the young man on its Web site, captured from MySpace, along with a message his mother had posted online before his death: "My dearest son, you should know how much daddy and I are so proud of you, taking the stand like you did, when you did, living out what you dreamed of doing since you were a young child. Keep your chin up, your head down, and remember dad and I love you with our whole being. Mom."

I found his page at MySpace (he called himself Sir Knight). The "last log-in" came on the day he died. His lead quote reads: "These are the times that try men's souls." Biographical details included the statement "I don't have heroes." The top entry in the comments section by his MySpace friends came from a young woman who wrote on July 13: "R.I.P. Andy." His younger brother, 18, and his mother each have their own MySpace pages which now include tributes. His mother described her "mood" in July as "depressed."

Like I said: I can barely stand the tragedy in all of this.

On August 5, in response to an earlier piece on this subject, I received the following email: "My 26 yr old son hung himself June 21st. He was an 'outstanding' SSG with 'great leadership skills' per his Army records. Something is very wrong with the services that they receive. He had been stationed at Fort Carson. Disch on May 2 with PTSD 50% disability and dead less than 6 weeks later, I am trying so hard to make sense of this tragedy."

This past January, Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman noted in The Hartford Courant that veterans advocates found the increase of suicides in 2006 "troubling." Steve Robinson, director of government relations for Veterans for America, told them he was particularly disturbed by suicides in the war zone because combat troops are supposed to be screened for mental health issues before they join the military, and throughout their careers. "These people aren't the kind of people that you would think would take this step," he said.

Chekedel told me in an email recently," we haven't looked at 2007 suicides -- and it's a tough subject to get timely statistics on. The Defense Manpower Data Center reports, which come out periodically and are broken down by 'casualty category,' do keep a running count of
self-inflicted deaths -- but because some cases are listed as 'pending,' and can be moved into the 'confirmed' category months later, it's tricky to get an accurate tally by calendar year."

Not even included in these tallies are cases like the following: "Two weeks ago Iraq vet Noah Pierce shot and killed himself in a remote section of northern Minnesota. The sheriff's office revealed that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and that Pierce had said, before he fled home with a few firearms, that he may be a danger to others as well as himself."

In the Deseret (Utah) Morning News last Monday, Stephen Speckman noted that the suicide rate among all veterans is now about twice the national average among nonveterans. On top of that, he added, "Among Army members, suicide rates between 2003 and 2006 for soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom were higher than the average Army rate, 16.1 versus 11.6 soldier suicides per year per 100,000, according to U.S. Army Medical Command spokesman Jerry Harben."

As for Andy Engstrom: There is no way of knowing right now why he put a bullet in his head in Iraq in early July. Some victims might have killed themselves without having served multiple tours of Iraq. Engstrom had been there since last October. But there was nothing to learn from press coverage of his funeral in Slaton on July 13: There was none that I could find. Nothing at all.

These sad events are often covered extensively by local papers saluting their hometown heroes. Do the families in these cases usually request a blackout? Hartz, the Lubbock reporter, tells me, "We are just waiting for the official report on his death to be released by the military. ... The family has not embraced coverage of Andrew's death, and therefore, our coverage has been limited." Locally, I can understand it, but there's no excuse for the lack of national attention to the number of suicides among U.S. troops.

article originally published at http://www.editorandpublisher.com.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey