Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP

General retracts controversial suicide comments

Fort Bliss commander apologizes for describing suicide as 'a selfish act.'

In a highly unusual move, a senior Army general publicly retracted blunt comments about suicide that drew criticism for appearing to deride troops struggling with serious mental problems.

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, the commander of the sprawling Fort Bliss Army installation in Texas, issued a statement on Thursday apologizing for having described suicide as "a selfish act."

"Thanks to many of you and your feedback, I have learned that this was a hurtful statement," Pittard wrote. "I also realize that my statement was not in line with the Army’s guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide. With my deepest sincerity and respect towards those whom I have offended, I retract that statement."

National Journal reported on Pittard's initial comments, which were posted on his official blog.

“I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act,” Pittard wrote in the controversial posting. “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”

The post was subsequently scrubbed from the Fort Bliss website, but the comments drew criticism for conveying the wrong message to emotionally fragile troops.

“Soldiers who are thinking about suicide can’t do what the general says: They can’t suck it up, they can’t let it go, they can’t just move on,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, the founder of Give an Hour, an organization that matches troops with civilian mental-health providers. “His statement — whatever motivated it — can do little good for those who are already on the edge."

Pittard's initial comments drew new attention to the military’s struggle against the suicide epidemic ravaging its forces. The Army’s suicide rate has been climbing for years, and last year a record 164 active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve soldiers took their own lives, compared with 159 in 2010. In 2008, the Army’s suicide rate exceeded that of the civilian world for the first time.

Many who work with Pittard were surprised by his blog comments, given the high priority he puts on suicide prevention. Fort Bliss, home to more than 100,000 troops and civilians, has an unusually large staff of 160 psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental-health professionals.

But Fort Bliss, like most other bases, continues to struggle to bring down its suicide numbers. So far this year, two troops from the base have killed themselves, putting the total Fort Bliss roughly on pace to match the six who took their lives last year. In 2010, five troops from the base killed themselves there.