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By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says military leaders should be held accountable for whether they succeed in helping desperate troops avoid choosing suicide -- which he has described as an epidemic in the military and now averaging more than one a day.

"What I've tried to do, very frankly, is to make sure that not only the secretary (of Defense), but all of the military leadership kick ass on this issue," Panetta told USA TODAY in an interview. "Leaders ought to be judged by how they lead on this issue."

He also said that the last decade of fighting two wars holds "lots of lessons" to be learned about "the human side of this prolonged warfare and how do we get a handle" on problems such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Pentagon is facing a record year of suicides among active-duty troops, averaging 33 deaths per month so far this year, according to Pentagon data through Sept. 2.

"I want to make sure that we are aware of how tragic this problem is and how urgent it is for us to try and address it," Panetta said. "We're talking about men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect this country. We have to do everything possible to try to make sure we protect them."

Panetta spoke on the issue Saturday in part because September is national suicide prevention month.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are all reporting potentially record increases this year in suicides. The Marine Corps has averaged about two suicides a week in recent months.

But the Army has suffered the highest numbers, tripling its suicide rate from 9.7 cases-per-100,000 in 2004 to 29.1-per-100,000 last month. In July, a record 38 soldiers killed themselves, according to service data.

Among a demographically similar civilian U.S. population, the suicide rate increased from 22-per-100,000 in 2005 to 24-per-100,000 in 2009, the latest data available.

Panetta said the military is still searching for answers to what's happening.

"Part of it, I think, is due to a nation that's been at war for over a decade," he said. "You have repeated deployments and sustained combat exposure to enormous stresses and strains on our troops and on their families that produced a lot of seen and unseen wounds that contribute to the suicide risk."

He said he also believes the military population is sensitive to issues that plague society at large -- substance abuse, financial distress and relationship problems.

Last week, Panetta said, he informed a gathering of top commanders that the problems of suicide and sexual assault are two top priorities.

"Leaders have to be sensitive and got to be aware," he says. "They've got to be open to the signs of stress and they've got to be aggressive in encouraging those that need help to seek that help and be able to receive it. It's important to point out that seeking help is a sign of strength and courage, not weakness."

Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who became the Army's No. 2 officer as vice chief of staff in January, assuming oversight of suicide issues, said Friday that the service culture must change to where soldiers are more comfortable seeking counseling.

"We have to make sure that our troops understand that by taking care of yourself, it's going to help your team and it's also going to enhance your performance," he said.

In an interview with USA TODAY, Austin said the Army is committed to caring for those in need and investing in scientific research that will unlock the causes and prevention of suicide.

But he emphasized that "95% of our population is doing fine. It's operating extremely well. Which is the part we don't talk about on a daily basis."

The veteran combat commander, who served three tours in Iraq and a fourth in Afghanistan, equated suicide with periods of heavy casualties in those wars.

"When you're in a fight like that, I think it's very difficult to figure out, from time to time, exactly where you are," he said.. "But if you stay focused on the right things, eventually you'll see some pretty good results. This (suicide) is kind of like that."

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