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Suicides at Fort Hood drop to 7-year low

– Suicides at Fort Hood plummeted to their lowest level in seven years in 2013, reflecting a military wide decline that officials and experts say is not yet well understood.

At Fort Hood, where 20 soldiers took their lives in 2012, officials in 2013 recorded five confirmed suicides and two suspected suicides through Dec. 20, according to information obtained by the Austin American-Statesman. That would be the fewest suicides at the massive Army post since 2007, when six soldiers killed themselves. More recent years have seen a surge in suicides at Fort Hood, reaching a high of 22 in 2010.

The 65 percent decline at Fort Hood was sharper than the military wide drop. A year after setting a grim record with 349 suicides, which outpaced combat deaths, suicides in the first 10 months of 2013 dropped 22 percent throughout the U.S. military, according to numbers reported by The Associated Press.

Experts say the reason for the declines isn’t clear. “I wish we knew,” said Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “It’s certainly good news, and we are happy to see the numbers going in a different direction. Many of us are cautiously optimistic, but, we wonder, is it a statistical blip or the first indicator of a new trend?”

Bryan said more research is needed to determine whether the military’s suicide prevention programs are helping reduce suicides. The answer probably won’t be clear for a year or two until researchers have more data, he said.

The declines came as the Army began reducing its fighting force, though cuts so far probably haven’t been large enough to significantly affect the suicide numbers, experts say. Fort Hood, which has more than 40,000 soldiers, could lose up to 2,900 soldiers, or 7 percent of its troops, by 2015.

The declines also came as combat operations in Afghanistan were largely ended and American troops handed off more responsibility to their Afghan counterparts. The nation’s longest war is scheduled to formally end at the end of this year.

But officials and experts say the decline in suicides and the end of combat aren’t necessarily related, especially since mental health trauma can take months or years to manifest.

“Psychological injuries don’t just disappear because the United States has changed foreign policy,” Bryan said. “It’s not quite as simple as saying that we are drawing down in Afghanistan so the numbers will go down.”

Fort Hood leaders say they will continue to focus on the array of suicide prevention programs and innovations that officials have implemented there and throughout the Army.