Sgt. Jacob Blaylock flipped on the video camera he had set up in a trailer at the Tallil military base, southeast of Baghdad.
He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, blew the smoke upward.
“Hey, it’s Jackie,” he said. “It’s the 20th of April. We go home in six days. I lost two good friends on the 14th. I’m having a hard time dealing with it.”
For almost a year, the soldiers of the 1451st Transportation Company had been escorting trucks full of gasoline, building materials and other supplies along Iraq’s dark, dangerous highways. There had been injuries, but no one had died.
Their luck evaporated less than two weeks before they were to return home, in the spring of 2007. A scout truck driving at the front of a convoy late at night hit a homemade bomb buried in the asphalt. Two soldiers, Sgt. Brandon Wallace and Sgt. Joshua Schmit, were killed.
The deaths stunned the unit, part of the North Carolina National Guard. The two men were popular and respected — “big personalities,” as one soldier put it. Sergeant Blaylock, who was close to both men, seemed especially shaken. Sometime earlier, feeling the strain of riding the gunner position in the exposed front truck, he had switched places with Sergeant Wallace, moving to a Humvee at the rear.
“It was supposed to be me,” he would tell people later.
The losses followed the men and women of the 1451st home as they dispersed to North Carolina and Tennessee, New York and Oklahoma, reuniting with their families and returning to their jobs.
Sergeant Blaylock went back to Houston, where he tried to pick up the pieces of his life and shape them into a whole. But grief and guilt trailed him, combining with other stresses: financial troubles, disputes with his estranged wife over their young daughter, the absence of the tight group of friends who had helped him make it through 12 months of war.
On Dec. 9, 2007, Sergeant Blaylock, heavily intoxicated, lifted a 9-millimeter handgun to his head during an argument with his girlfriend and pulled the trigger. He was 26.
“I have failed myself,” he wrote in a note found later in his car. “I have let those around me down.”
Over the next year, three more soldiers from the 1451st — Sgt. Jeffrey Wilson, Sgt. Roger Parker and Specialist Skip Brinkley — would take their own lives. The four suicides, in a unit of roughly 175 soldiers, make the company an extreme example of what experts see as an alarming trend in the years since the invasion of Iraq.
The number of suicides reported by the Army has risen to the highest level since record-keeping began three decades ago. Last year, there were 192 among active-duty soldiers and soldiers on inactive reserve status, twice as many as in 2003, when the war began. (Five more suspected suicides are still being investigated.) This year’s figure is likely to be even higher: from January to mid-July, 129 suicides were confirmed or suspected, more than the number of American soldiers who died in combat during the same period.
Those statistics, of course, do not offer a full picture. Suicide counts tend to be undercounts, and the trend is less marked in other branches of the military. Nor are there reliable figures for veterans who have left the service; the Department of Veterans Affairs can only systematically track suicides among its hospitalized patients, and it does not issue regular suicide reports.
Even so, stung by criticism from veterans groups and mental health advocates, the Pentagon and the veterans agency have increased efforts to understand and address the problem. They have bolstered suicide-prevention programs, hiring hundreds more mental health providers. At Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, where at least 14 soldiers have killed themselves this year alone, normal activities were suspended for three days in May and replaced with suicide-prevention training. Late last year, the Army commissioned a five-year, $50 million study of the causes of suicide among soldiers, turning to four outside experts to lead the research.
“The ‘business as usual’ attitudes of the past are no longer appropriate,” said George Wright, an Army spokesman. “It’s clear we have not found full solutions yet, but we are trying every remedy.”