Knesset, IDF Tackle Taboo of Soldier Suicides

Between 25 and 27 Israel Defense Forces soldiers commit suicide each year, according to data presented yesterday at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's subcommittee on personnel.

Most of the suicides (some 80 percent) are conscripts, 10 percent serve in the reserves, and 10 percent serve in the career army.

"The IDF must wage an all-out war on suicide by soldiers," the army's deputy chief of personnel, Brigadier General Avi Zamir, told lawmakers at the meeting, which was called for by MK Ran Cohen (Yahad).

Zamir added that the General Staff has decided to make the issue a higher priority and that the chief of staff will order a special discussion of the matter once a year. Zamir said the IDF has also decided to appoint a special committee, which he will head, to study the findings of military police investigations and of inquiries at unit level into soldiers' suicides.

In addition, the army has decided that commanders will receive more information about soldiers with suicidal tendencies (for example, whether they had been in therapy before entering the army), a hot line will be opened for parents of suicidal soldiers and the soldiers will be instructed to go to their commander or an army psychiatrist with every emotional problem.

The data presented to the subcommittee, chaired by MK Danny Yatom (Labor), indicates that most suicides occur on Sundays, when soldiers return from furlough. Some 60 percent of suicides take their lives during their first year of military service.

There is no difference in the suicide rate between soldiers who serve in combat units and those in homefront units. The suicide rate among new immigrants is similar to their proportional representation in the IDF - 20 percent. Almost all of the soldiers who commit suicide are men (94 percent).

MK Cohen criticized the IDF for burying a comprehensive report on suicides in the armed forces, which had been prepared by a sociologist, Lieutenant Colonel (Res.) Shmuel Yana, and offered recommendations for dealing with the suicide phenomenon.

Among other things, the report claimed that "the subject of suicides in the IDF is a hot potato that nobody really wants to handle." The committee members asked to see the report.

The subcommittee also discussed the medical treatment soldiers receive, in the wake of complaints by soldiers who said they had received negligent care and encountered a demeaning attitude.

The IDF's chief medical officer, Brigadier General Hezi Levy, said the army displays sensitivity for the distress of soldiers who require medical attention. Levy said every soldier who seeks care is treated in an appropriate manner.

The IDF, Levy added, is currently in the process of privatizing medical treatment for soldiers. The plan is to eliminate military clinics located in cities throughout the country and to allow soldiers on leave who require medical treatment to go to clinics belonging to health maintenance organizations.