Investigations launched as concern mounts over soldier suicides
There have been 954 suicides in the military over the past 10 years, prompting government officials to call for investigations and reform to address the problem.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 10/12/12
Mert Evren Akdag is one of the three soldiers who have died in suspicious circumstances across Turkey over the last few weeks.
Chief of the General Staff, General Necdet Ozel, announced the military would launch a special investigation into suicides within the army. [AFP]
The 20-year-old native of Eskisehir was performing his military service in Izmir's Bergama district, where he was found dead on November 30th, according to media reports.
Akdag reportedly fell into depression for unknown reasons, tied a necktie to an iron pipe, and hung himself while other soldiers were sleeping in the barracks. Akdag's friends claimed he became introverted and rarely talked with anyone during the last 10 days of his life.
The incident garnered public attention as reports about the suspicious deaths of Ismail Akca and Emre Tanık, who were performing their military service in the southeastern provinces of Sirnak and Kahramanmaras, appeared in the media recently.
As investigations around all three cases continue, concern over the rate of suicide attempts prompted officials in Ankara to call on military leaders to improve the military's suicide-prevention programs.
"The Turkish Armed Forces cannot accept such incidents and will take the necessary measures [to prevent them]," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said during a December 4th press conference while commenting on Akdag's death.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, 175 soldiers have committed suicide, according to the Parliamentary Human Rights Investigation Commission's records, which recently held a special meeting to discuss the growing number of suicides.
"This number has reached 934 within the past 10 years," Ayhan Sefer Ustun, head of the Commission, told SES Türkiye, noting that suicide attempts are usually related to problems with intimate relationships, work, finances and the law.
On Thursday (November 6th) the Chief of the General Staff, General Necdet Ozel, ordered a special team to investigate the causes of an increasing number of suicides within the military.
The team will prepare reports after talking with the friends and acquaintances of the soldiers who committed suicide, their commanders and other staff in military facilities where the suicides took place.
In a statement on Friday, the General Staff said the suicides are the result of family problems, personal relationships, drug addiction and financial difficulties in civilian life, rather than bad treatment in the military.
The statement said conscripts' mental health is evaluated prior to serving, and those identified as a suicide risk are determined not fit for military service. Meanwhile, all active duty soldiers are provided with psychological help through 337 advice and counseling centres and a 24/7 hotline.
As a result of precautions, support networks and other services, the suicide rate has been cut in half from 32 per 100,000 in 2002 to 15 per 100,000 in 2011, the General Staff stated.
"Before identifying the reasons behind suicides, before legal and administrative investigations have been officially revealed, making the public angry through comments and evaluations that leave the military subject to suspicion is not right," the statement read.
In the meantime, analysts like Tolga Islam, head of the Rights of Conscripts Initiative, a group that prepared a special report on soldiers' suicides, call on the government to launch an independent investigation over the latest suicides, rather than military.
"Transparency is very important here. A closed investigation is not an option as people need to know what is going on and why these 20-year-old men choose this path," he told SES Türkiye.
Islam believes that most of the suicides are the direct result of physical and psychological mistreatment or bullying in the Army.
"This is not new in our Army," he said. "Suicide attempts have risen over the last five years. But the question is why didn't the military leaders investigate it before."
Umit Kardas, a retired military judge and current faculty member at Fatih University's Law School, believes that soldier suicides are "a systemic problem" that can only be dealt with through structural changes in the military.
The military, he suggested, should transition from a conscript army to a professional army, something that has been on the national agenda for the past several years.
"Mistreatment and the lack of accountability for military personnel are problems by themselves. Almost 50 percent of the suicides happen because of this," Kardas told SES Türkiye.
Even in professional armies there is often a lack of counseling and other services for soldiers having difficulty adjusting to military life, he said.
"These problems are going to be much more widespread in conscript armies, where the soldiers have not chosen to be there but were forced to," Kardas said.
Other retired military officers, like Colonel Serdar Erdurmaz at the Turkish Centre for Strategic Analysis, said it is a mistake to attribute all suicides to mistreatment.
For Erdurmaz, the problem is largely psychological.
"The main cause is the tensions which come up with where they are stationed," told SES Türkiye. "If you are stationed in the region where terrorist attacks are a continuous threat and you have to be in the alert position all the time it causes a great psychological burden on the soldiers overall."