Armed forces' suicides surpass combat deaths

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More servicemen and women have committed suicide over the past two decades than have died in military action, according to new figures.

The latest death toll for those in the armed forces who have taken their own lives has risen to 687 compared with 438 killed during active service in major conflicts such as the Gulf, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

Ministry of Defence (MoD) figures released this weekend also reveal that the number of suicides among servicemen and women has risen by at least 49 in a year. This is more than three times the number of soldiers killed since the start of war in Afghanistan in 2001 and has raised fresh concerns about the mental welfare of troops. Those most at risk of taking their own lives are soldiers in their early 20s and teenage army recruits.

The suicide figures are based on research by the Government's Defence Analytical Services Agency (Dasa). Its latest report reveals that between 1984 and 2006, 687 armed-forces personnel killed themselves, a figure that includes 672 men and 15 women. This compares with 638 deaths between 1984 and 2005, and 624 up to 2004.

Dasa says male suicide rates in the forces are lower than in the general population, with the exception of army males under the age of 20. The Army has a higher rate of suicides than the Navy or RAF, particularly for those aged 25 and under. Male soldiers aged 20 to 24 and those aged under 20 have the highest rates of suicide, with 18 deaths and 16 respectively per 100,000 troops. This comes just weeks after opposition MPs demanded action following the disclosure that at least 17 personnel had taken their own lives after seeing action in the Gulf.

Last month, this newspaper highlighted the plight of traumatised troops returning from combat who feel abandoned by the state. Numerous public figures have signed up to The Independent on Sunday's campaign to achieve justice for the victims of post-traumatic stress.

Charities, including Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion, warn that figures of mental illness could rise and that doctors are poor at recognising conditions such as combat stress.

Clive Fairweather, a former SAS colonel, said there is "no doubt the modern Army is exposed to a lot more pressure because there are fewer soldiers".

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