SUSANNE M. SCHAFER
The Associated Press
FORT JACKSON, S.C. (AP) - The Army's top general says basic training will soon include anti-stress programs as part of a broader effort to help soldiers deal with the aftereffects of combat and prevent suicides.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told reporters during a visit to inspect training Thursday that the new program will begin Oct. 1. It will be part of a soldier's first week in basic and continue through all levels of Army education for officers and enlisted men and women.
"This is something that will serve the soldiers in whatever environment they are in - at war, at home, and frankly in their personal lives," Casey said.
The Army has struggled to curb a surge in suicides. Casey says he is frustrated by the numbers and feels the Army hasn't done enough to give soldiers preventive skills to fight stress, both in combat and when they return home.
"A year or so ago when we began thinking about this, we saw the suicide rates climbing and I remember the futility of sitting there and talking about, what could we have done differently, why didn't we see this?" Casey said. "I thought we need to focus more on giving soldiers the tools that they need and never got."
The program is necessary, the general said, given the Army's pace of wartime deployments, which he called "the treadmill we've been on for eight years," and one that will continue "for some time to come."
There were a record 140 soldier suicides in 2008, pushing the rate per 100,000 troops beyond the civilian ratefor the first time since record-keeping started.
Sharp increases continued this year, with 51 in January and February alone. But officials said recently that the toll had tapered off slightly after that, with 41 reported from March to mid-July.
Casey said he found the Army's services for dealing with mental fitness were "heavily weighted on providing assistance and treatment after we identified the problem, and we were a little light on the preventive side, giving soldiers skills up front so they avoid having problems to begin with."
The program is formally dubbed Comprehensive Soldier Fitness and melds with some work already under way.
Casey sat in on a class with about 60 basic trainees who discussed dealing with emotional issues, watching out for their fellow soldiers and the stress of maintaining a military bearing.
"You don't have to act on your emotions," the instructor said, adding, "Emotions don't make you weak. You need to develop emotional control."
Casey said he envisioned the instruction continuing "as something drill sergeants will have in their kit bag," and discuss on a target range after a round of practice.
Casey said the program will be inserted in training throughout an enlisted soldier's career, as well as for officers - even to the highest levels at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
The general predicted results will not be immediate. "It will take a year or so before we see an impact across the Army," he said.
Fort Jackson is located outside Columbia. It is the service's largest training installation and drills half of the Army's soldiers.
In Washington on Wednesday, Casey's vice chief, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, told a congressional hearing that the program "is designed to raise mental fitness up to the same level of attention as we have historically given to physical healthand fitness."
"Multiple studies have shown that mental and emotional strength are just as important as physical strength to the safety and well-being of our soldiers," Chiarelli said.
Associated Press Writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.