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The new suicide figure compares with 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006 and is the highest since record keeping began in 1980. Officials calculate the deaths at a rate of roughly 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers — which is higher than the adjusted civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War, officials told a Pentagon news conference.
"We need to move quickly to do everything we can to reverse this disturbing ... number," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said.
Officials have said that troops are under tremendous and unprecedented stress because of repeated and long tours of duty due to the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The stress has placed further burdens on an overwhelmed military health care system also trying to tend to huge numbers of troops suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression and other mental health problems as well as physical wounds and injuries of tens of thousands.
Yearly increases in suicides have been recorded since 2004, when there were 64 — only about half the number now. And they've occurred despite increased training, prevention programs and psychiatric staff.
When studying individual cases, officials said they found that the most common factors for suicides were soldiers suffering problems with their personal relationships, legal or financial issues and problems on the job.
The statistics released Thursday cover soldiers who killed themselves while they were on active duty — including National Guard and Reserve troops who had been activated.
The previous year's rate of suicides — 18.8 per 100,000 soldiers — had also been the highest on record. But the new pace of 20.2 per 100,000 was the first time the rate surpassed the civilian number, when adjusted to reflect the Army's younger and male-heavy demographics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the suicide rate for U.S. society overall was about 11 per 100,000 in 2004, the latest year for which the agency has figures. But the Army says the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000 when adjusted.
The new estimated rate of 20.2 is more than double the 9.8 in 2002 — the first full year after the start of the war in Afghanistan
The new Army statistics follow a report earlier this month showing that the Marine Corps recorded more suicides last year than any year since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
That report said 41 Marines were possible or confirmed suicides in 2008, or 16.8 per 100,000 troops. The Marine rate remained unchanged from the previous year.
Marine and Army units have borne most of duty in the two wars, which have required more use of ground forces to fight the insurgencies.
The numbers kept by the service branches don't show the whole picture of war-related suicides because they don't include deaths after people have left the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks those numbers and says there were 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the two ongoing wars.
The true incidence of suicide among military veterans is not known, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service. Based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VA estimates that 18 veterans a day — or 6,500 a year — take their lives, but that number includes vets from all previous wars.
"The suicide numbers released today come as no surprise to the veterans' community who has experienced the psychological toll of war," said Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But we cannot let current trend lines continue. These are preventable deaths for which the Department of Defense and the VA can and must take bold action."