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Army Suicide Rates Climbing

The Colorado Springs community is constantly reminded of the men and women in uniform who are lost in combat. The Army is now reporting a dramatic rise in the number of soldiers taking their own lives.

There is a single diamond set in a black band on the finger where Mia Sagahon expected to wear her wedding ring.

She thought her fiancee, a veteran, Walter Padilla would be by her side forever.

"You wake up and see them daily and then they're just gone," she said.

Visions of the battlefield haunted the medically discharged Padilla. He tried to hide his pain and tormenting questions from the ones he loved. Mia now knows these questions all too well.

"Am I a weak person?" she believed he wondered. "Why is this happening to me? feeling alone, why am I having these dreams?"

Walter silenced the voices in 2007, taking his life with a single shot from his own gun.

"You can't say good-bye, or anything. It's horrible," Sagahon said.

The Army expects 2007 will have been one of the worst in years in terms of suicide among active soldiers. If 32 cases still under investigation are added to the 89 confirmed, 121 suicides represent a 20 percent spike from 2006 - more than twice the number reported in 2001, pushing the Army rate closer to that seen among the civilian community.

Even more alarming, according to U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) sources, attempted suicides rose to more than 2,000, up from about 1,400 in 2006.

It is an issue that hits close to home for Ft. Carson commanders. Major General Mark Graham, lost a son to suicide.

"In every case where there's a suicide, people will tell you I should have seen it coming. I should have seen it," Graham said.

Army investigators say motives are different, but common reasons include stress levels from time put in battle.

"The secretary of the Army says our Army is tired, that is no secret. I think our nation is understanding that we are a nation at war now for seven years in Afghanistan, six years in Iraq," said COL Kelly Wolgast, Director of Ft. Carson's Evans Army Hospital.

Investigators report many are linked to strained romantic relationships, or failed marriages. There's also the issue of fearing to admit to loved ones and superiors they need help.

"There's always been an organizational stigma in a sense, but I've seen many more leaders and commanders who are psychologically minded who understand there are issues that need to be addressed that there are soldiers who need to come forward and they encourage them to do so," said COL Bill Quirk, Ft. Carson's Chief of Behavioral Health. Quirk believes progress is being made, from continued mandatory screenings of soldiers home from battle, to boosting resources available directly on post.

"We have providers who are coming back to us that are civilians who were once military and are so concerned about the soldiers, that now they're working for us, even though they could get higher money outside," Quirk said.

In response to a need for greater access to care and soldier privacy, a military/community partnership is in its first year of what organizers hope will be a long run.

"I think that certainly the cooperation between our organization and Ft. Carson to make all available resources accessible to soldiers and their families as they come back again gives them lots of options for intervention," said Sharon Raggio.

Raggio directs Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group, and said soldiers are already coming to the organization for help. Progress, she believes will come with open doors, and knowing where to turn.

"This community loves the military very very much but how do all the community service providers come together and figure out how to make it seamless for that soldier and their family, so that information is there and options are available, and nobody has to fall through the cracks," Raggio said.

If soldiers won't seek help for themselves, commanders say the soldiers' friends have to know to step in when they're worried.

"You still have battle buddies. Take care of each other," Graham said.

Graham believes the responsibility to recognize stress and pain falls on leaders from top commanders to the lowest enlisted soldier in charge of others. He is now handing out Army "Ace Cards" inscribed with instructions to ask, care and escort.

"If a soldier breaks his leg, you escort them to the hospital," said Graham. "If a soldier has another illness or injury you escort them to the hospital. Why is this any different?"

After losing her fiancee and taking part in last year's congressional inquiry into military treatment, Mia Sagahon is skeptical soldiers will ever turn to commanders for help.

"I think it'd be a huge step for the Army to work with the community especially if the community is embracing it. I definitely think that's one of the answers," she said.

She does agree with commanders that dismantling stigma and finding long-term solutions will happen with small steps; the first, Graham said, is one taken with courage.

"It is a sign of strength, not weakness to come forward and get help."

DoD sources report Army officials are currently working on a list of ways to update the Army's suicide prevention program.

Anyone in immediate need of help can find a list of providers and important connections can by dialing 2-1-1.


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