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South Korea mostly suicide-free for U.S. troops

Feb. 18, 2013 - 12:45PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 18, 2013 - 12:45PM  |  
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Even as the Army recorded its worst year in decades for soldiers killing themselves — with 323 deaths in 2012 — there were places in the service where suicides are rare.

One is South Korea, where among the nearly 20,000 GIs stationed there last year, there was one suicide: a soldier hanged himself. Leaders there say they are encouraging troops to seek help and to look out for one another, and that effort is paying off.

Last December, Army Spc. Andrew Korpash, 26, who is stationed near the Korean demilitarized zone, contacted a chaplain about desperate text messages another G.I. sent after being jilted by a woman. "The thing that got my attention was the actual list of ways he would do it (commit suicide)," said Korpash, a Korean language linguist. "That's when it seemed like it was pretty serious to me."

But there is another reason that underscores how U.S. troops die by suicide: the use of firearms. In South Korea, troops are effectively barred from keeping private firearms because of strict national gun control laws.

"Most soldiers in the military, the majority, commit suicide through firearms," said Maj. Gen. Edward Cardon, commander of 2nd Infantry Division and some 10,000 soldiers in South Korea. "So the restrictions on firearms is clearly a factor (in reducing the deaths)."

Military research shows that guns are involved in 61 percent of service member suicides — personal firearms in three out of four of those cases. Gun suicides are even more prevalent in the Army, where suicide rates rose to 29 per 100,000 last year, above the pace of suicides in the public.

A soon-to-be published study by the Pentagon's National Center for Telehealth and Technology asserts there is a gun culture among those who volunteer to serve and acknowledges the difficulty of restricting personal firearms, despite evidence that it could reduce suicides.

In Israel, which has tough restrictions on personal firearms, the Israeli Defense Force changed policy in 2006, prohibiting troops from taking their service weapons home on weekends. Suicides dropped 45 percent, according to a 2010 study.

American troops anywhere in the world are heavily restricted on registration and storage of personal firearms while living on U.S. military bases. But that uniformity ends when the issue is off-base housing.

Troops overseas must abide by the restrictions of host nations, according to military policy. Accordingly, U.S. troops in South Korea, Germany, Italy and elsewhere are virtually without access to personal firearms.

Suicides have been fewer among those troops.

Last year, there were three Army suicides among the 25,000 soldiers posted in Germany, one among 19,200 in South Korea and none in Italy, where 3,900 soldiers are based.

Meanwhile, U.S. bases often see double-digit suicides each year. There were a dozen among the 30,000 GIs at Fort Campbell, Ky., last year; 17 at Fort Hood, Texas, which has 46,500 soldiers; and 10 among the 20,000 G.I.s at Fort Stewart, Ga., according to Army statistics.

"The takeaway message is we have to do everything we can to limit access to firearms by someone who is depressed, they're suicidal, struggling with thoughts of self harm," said Robert Gebbia, executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "It's just good common sense."

Among 2nd Infantry Division soldiers in South Korea, Cardon said he has pushed beyond the issue of personal firearms to training soldiers like Korpash to intervene when signs of suicide emerge. Last year, 26 of his soldiers helped to stop a suicide from happening.

"They tell us everyone is responsible to recognize it when you see it," said Korpash, of Flower Mound, Texas, who received an Army achievement medal for stopping a suicide.

The 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea reported that suicide attempts fell from 56 in 2011 to 36 last year.

"I'm not going to rest on this," Cardon said. "The piece I really focus on is what we call collective responsibility. If something doesn't look right next to you, ask the question. Don't wait."

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