WASHINGTON, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- A soldier who served in Iraq apparently hung himself with a bedsheet last week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but the Pentagon did not count that death two days later when it announced "a very small increase" in the suicide rate from Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It also did not count an Operation Iraqi Freedom soldier who apparently committed suicide at the same military hospital last July. The Pentagon said it is not counting suicides among troops who killed themselves after they left Iraq.
A veterans' advocate questioned that decision.
"I want to know why stateside suicides are not counted in the total number of suicides reported by the Department of Defense," said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center and a former Army Ranger.
Robinson said he fears an epidemic of mental problems among troops who have served in the war. "There appears to be a significant increase in both suicides and post-traumatic stress disorder," Robinson said.
Robinson is set to testify Wednesday before a House Armed Services Committee panel on that issue and other health problems facing U.S. troops. Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. James B. Peake is also scheduled to testify.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr. told reporters last week that the Pentagon was tracking at least 22 suicides from the war, including 19 Army soldiers. He said that for the Army, that number reflects a suicide rate "on the high end of what they've seen in the past." But, he said, "It looks like a very small increase."
That total does not include the Jan. 12 death at Walter Reed, a few miles north of the Pentagon, nor the apparent suicide of an Army master sergeant at the same hospital July 4.
Pentagon spokeswoman Martha Rudd said the military is counting only suicides that occurred in theater. "All of these deaths occurred in Iraq or Kuwait," Rudd said. She would not discuss suicides further or explain how the Department of Defense calculates what it said is the slightly elevated suicide rate among soldiers. "Arriving at the rate requires going about it a certain way," Rudd said.
She said a team of investigators who went to Iraq to study the suicides and mental health problems among troops would issue a report soon.
In interviews by United Press International at Fort Stewart, Fort Knox and Fort Benning, soldiers described mental problems among troops returning from war and little if any access to mental health help.
At Fort Benning, four soldiers from the same company in the Army's famed Third Infantry Division have been charged in connection with the fatal stabbing of a fifth soldier in July. Medical records reviewed by UPI show that at least one of the four charged in the death had attempted suicide in Kuwait before returning home, but was given less than an hour's counseling at Fort Benning before being released.
At least a half-dozen other soldiers from that company have spent time in the psychiatric ward at Fort Benning.
Pentagon data on the number of medical evacuations obtained by UPI this fall showed that more than 1 in 5 non-combat medical evacuations were for mental problems or brain problems. Army Surgeon General Spokeswoman Virginia Stephanakis said lumping brain problems and mental problems together was misleading, because the two were "like apples and oranges," but provided no elaboration on the data.
Concern over mental health issues is mounting as the Army brings home tens of thousands of troops from Iraq. The Army has said that between 200,000 and 250,000 soldiers, including 120,000 reservists, will be going to or returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom during the first four months of this year.
Winkenwerder said the 19 Army suicides compute to a rate of 13.5 suicides per 100,000 personnel per year. That is higher than an expected 10 to 11 per year. The figure could rise if a number of deaths still under investigation are ruled suicides.
He said the Pentagon does not see any significant trends among the data but has deployed nine combat stress teams for forces in Iraq and placed a psychologist, psychiatrist and social worker with each division.
Walter Reed spokesman Bill Swisher confirmed deaths on Jan. 12 and July 4 at the hospital, but said both were under investigation so he could not comment.