Jeffrey R. McKinney, Andrew Velez and Ted Westhusing are not statistics. They are sons, husbands, brothers and fathers who committed suicide while fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. But in recent months, they have become nothing more than numbers that keep adding up to what's become one of the most under-reported stories to emerge in wartime: Only yesterday, the Army reported a record number of soldier suicides -- 24 -- for the month of January, the highest monthly total since the military began keeping track in 1980. That follows last week's announcement that the rate of soldier suicides in 2008 -- 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, up from 16.8. in 2007 -- has also broken an all-time record and marks the first time the Army suicide rate has exceeded the national rate since the Pentagon began keeping records.
"This story's on the back burner now," says Charles McKinney of Bedford, whose son, 19-year veteran First Sergeant Jeff McKinney, killed himself in front of his men in Adhamiyah, Iraq, on July 11, 2007. "I understand there are more pressing issues, like the economy. And the war in Iraq appears to have toned down. But now we're feeling the after-effects. This was my son's second tour. But after his first tour, he told me -- and there had been a real bad incident where kids were killed -- he told me, 'I'll never be the same again.'"
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Among the grim reports in recent days, the Army has announced increased prevention efforts to educate soldiers about recognizing the signs that a peer may be suicidal and to encourage soldiers to seek mental health care. Meanwhile, Army Secretary Pete Geren has ordered a stand-down of the Army's entire recruiting force in the wake of an investigation of five suicides in the Houston Recruiting Battalion since 2001. The Washington-based nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) sends word in a press release that it "has experienced a 300% increase in the number of families seeking comfort and support following the suicide of a loved one who served in the Armed Forces."
Since Jeff McKinney's death, his father has been in constant contact with Stephen L. Robinson, the director of veterans affairs for Veterans for America and a former Army Ranger who's served as a sort of liaison between vets' families and politicians. There had been an attempt to hold Congressional hearings concerning soldiers' suicides: Last May, Republican Senator Kit Bond of Missouri introduced the so-called "HONOR Warriors Act," which would "improve and enhance the mental health care benefits available to members of the Armed Forces and veterans" as well as "enhance counseling and other benefits available to survivors of members of the Armed Forces and veterans." But the bill -- co-sponsored by, among others, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama -- got nowhere.
Republican Senator John Cornyn jas called for an investigation into the suicides at the Houston Recruiting Battalion. Charles McKinney hopes that, sooner than later, there will be a full inquiry throughout the military.
"I can't bring my son back," says McKinney, himself a former Marine. "But I just want to call attention to this. It's a problem and not being addressed fully. The military has taken steps, but so much more can be done. I get angry, and that doesn't do em any good. I'm not going to let Jeff's death be in vain. He was a 19-year-veteran, he had a beautiful wife, a newborn son, and he was ready to retire. ... These are not statistics. This is real. And it did not need to happen."