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Soldier suicides this year could surpass the record rate of last year,

WASHINGTON - Soldier suicides this year could surpass the record rate of last year, Army officials said Thursday, urging military leaders at all levels to redouble prevention efforts for a force strained by two wars.

As of the end of August, there were 62 confirmed suicides among active duty soldiers and Guard and Reserve troops called to active duty, officials said. Another 31 deaths appear to be suicides but are still being investigated.

If all are confirmed, that means that the number for 2008 could eclipse the 115 of last year — and the rate per 100,000 could surpass that of the civilian population, Col. Eddie Stephens, deputy director of human resources policy, said at a Pentagon news conference.

"Army leaders are fully aware that repeated deployments have led to increased distress and anxiety for both soldiers and their families," Army Secretary Pete Geren said.

"The Army is committed to ensuring that all soldiers and their families receive the behavioral health care they need," he said in a statement distributed at the press conference on National Suicide Prevention Week starting Sunday.

"Installations and units across the Army have been directed to redouble their efforts in awareness and prevention training and soldier care and support services," Stephens said.

To try to stem the continually growing number of suicides, the Army already has been increasing the number of staff psychiatrists and other mental health staff as well as chaplains and bolstering programs both at home and at the battlefronts. Officials also are about to issue a new interactive video for troops and will be adding a new program on resilience to basic training starting in January, said Brig. Gen. Rhonda L. Cornum, an assistant Army surgeon general.

"There are no simple problems and there are no simple solutions," Cornum said. "There is no program that has been shown to be truly effective at preventing suicides ... Success will be the sum of a number of smaller steps."

As officials have said before, Cornum said the main factors in soldier suicides continues to be problems with their personal relationships, legal and financial issues, work problems and the repeated deployments and longer tour lengths prompted by an Afghan war entering its eighth year and Iraq campaign in its sixth.

The Army has come under unprecedented stress as the main force in the two largely ground wars

Of the confirmed deaths so far this year, three soldiers were in the Army Reserves and four in the Army National Guard.

If the overall numbers continue through December as they have been, Stephens said, they would eclipse the 115 of 2007, 102 in 2006, 87 in 2005 and 67 in 2004.

The rate per 100,000 soldiers also has been rising and could be surpassed. It was 18.1 per 100,000 last year — the highest since the Army started keeping record in 1980. That compared to a rate of 17.5 in 2006 and 9.8 in 2002 — the first full year after the start of the war in Afghanistan.

The rate for 2008 has not been calculated, officials said, but if the trend holds, it would surpass the demographically adjusted rate of 19.5 per 100,00 for the civilian population, Stephens said.

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 that when civilian rates are adjusted to cover the same age and gender mix that exists in the Army — a younger and largely male population — the civilian rate is more like 19.5 per 100,000.

The Army has come under unprecedented stress as the main force in the two largely ground wars.

The Marine Corps, the second biggest force in Iraq — and even younger and more male than the Army — had a rate of 16.5 per 100,000 in 1007, the last year readily available. The Air Force and Navy had rates of a little over 10 per 100,000, according to defense records.

Col. Carl Castro, director of military operational medical research for the Army, said that in addition to the many programs officials are trying, there needs to be a cultural shift in the military to get people to focus more on mental health and fitness.

"It takes some time ... to get a cultural shift," he said "Sometimes they take decades."

In addition to suicide prevention programs, the Pentagon also has been working to encourage troops to seek mental health care by reducing the stigma associated with getting help. Officials believe many who need help don't get it because they fear it will hurt their careers.

Officials last year also budgeted $25 million for the "Strong Bonds" program, run by chaplains and aimed at strengthening personal relationships strained by long and repeated separations as well as other stresses.