High Suicide Rate For Iraq War GIs
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2004 - Texas Army Specialist Joseph Suell told his mother he wasn't cut out to fight the Iraq war.
"He said 'Momma I haven't killed anybody here and I hope I never have to kill anybody,'" said Rena Mathis.
Instead, the 24-year-old husband and father of three apparently took his own life.
"The cause of death is Ibuprofin and amphetamine. Self-inflicted overdose. The Pentagon says self inflicted overdose," said Mathis, reading a military document on her son's death.
As CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara reports, since the war in Iraq began, 519 American soldiers have died in the line of duty. But there are questions about how many soldiers were suicides.
The Army has not released the findings of a mental-health team that went to Iraq last fall. And some charge the Pentagon is not telling the whole story.
The Pentagon counts at least 22 GI suicides in the Iraq conflict -- 19 of those Army troops -- most after major combat was declared over last May.
"It's statistically too high and it could be as many as 30 -- it could be as many as 30 in Iraq," said Steve Robinson, a retired Army Ranger who is lobbying Congress to pressure the Pentagon to come clean with the true extent of the war's psychiatric toll.
"This has the potential to be a bad news story," he said.
"A bombshell?" asked McNamara.
"I think so," Robinson replied.
"Our leadership is heavily engaged to make sure that we are doing everything possible to take care of even that one soldier that might take his life," said Lt. Gen. James Peake, Army Surgeon General.
But what the Pentagon does not count are stateside soldier suicides. GIs who took their own lives after duty in Iraq. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center two hospitalized Iraq war vets hung themselves.
An army study three years ago forecast an impending soldier-suicide crisis, but critics say it was largely ignored until more than 600 U.S. soldiers began being evacuated from Iraq for psychiatric reasons.
"I tried to blow my head off with my weapon and then one split second more and I would have succeeded," one soldier said. "I mean I had the gun to my head with the safety off, with the round chambered."
McNamara wanted to know, "What saved you?"
"They did. They took the weapon away from me," he answered.
Some blame Lariam, a malaria drug given soldiers and suspected of having suicidal side effects, or that extended duty tours are taxing battle-fatigued troops.
"I can't see anybody going over there cause it's pure hell. It is hell," said another soldier.
"This place is not for me," wrote Specialist Suell.
Reading her son's last letter helps Rena Mathis make peace with his death.
"I think God just took him away from that battlefield, that's what I think," Mathis said. "I think God just said 'C'mon let's go, it's not for you.'"
But she cannot forgive an army she believes could have done more to bring him back alive.