WASHINGTON (AP) — Using the Air Force as a model, the Pentagon is rallying the military services to strengthen and improve their approach to preventing suicide, the second-leading cause of death among troops.

The Air Force has managed to lower its suicide rate to 5.6 per 100,000 members of the active-duty force from 15.2 just four years ago. The Air Force's rate now is about half that of the military as a whole.

Although Pentagon statistics do not show any general increase in suicides, officials are developing a more streamlined, standardized policy on suicide prevention they hope will emulate the Air Force's success.

The Air Force puts special emphasis on encouraging troubled individuals to seek mental health help. It also created a "buddy" system in which a service member who recognizes a potential suicide knows how and where to refer the person for professional help. Another key to the Air Force approach is minimizing the stigma that normally is attached to a military member who admits to a mental health problem.

Despite the apparent payoff from this approach, experts say it is too early to say for sure what accounts for the reduced suicides.

"There are two questions: Why, and can they sustain it?" said Navy Capt. Frances Stewart of the Pentagon's health affairs office.

The Army is trying to match the Air Force's success, in part by attacking the stigma problem.

Suicide rates for the military as a whole have held relatively steady in recent years, although the Army says its suicide rate has gone up the past two years.

The Army last year had 65 confirmed suicides and 12 deaths suspected to be suicides, a rate of 15.5 suicides per 100,000 soldiers. That rate climbed for the second year in a row and is the highest among the services; only twice before over the past two decades was the Army's rate higher.

The Marine Corps last year had a rate of 15 suicides per 100,000 service members, the Navy's was 11 and the Air Force was at 5.6.

The actual number of military suicides may not seem large, considering that the active-duty force now stands at 1.3 million. But suicides over the past 10 years have been the second-leading cause of death, after accidents. During that time, about 10 times as many troops have died at their own hand as from hostile fire.

Although official statistics on suicides among the general U.S. population are not directly comparable to the military, the civilian suicide rate for white males in their 20s — the predominant group in the military — was about 24 per 100,000 in 1997. That is about twice the rate for the military.

Statistically, the typical military suicide is committed by a white male in his 20s, in the upper levels of the enlisted ranks. Frequently the person has suffered a recent breakup of a marriage or other close personal relationship, and often alcohol or personal financial problems are involved.

A Pentagon-sponsored study in 1997, triggered by the shocking suicide of the Navy's top officer, Adm. Mike Boorda in May 1996, said it was not clear whether life in the military carries unique risks of suicide. Indeed suicide rates in the military traditionally have been slightly lower than in the civilian population.

On the other hand, some aspects of the military culture may inhibit some who need help from seeking it, according to Dr. John F. Mazzuchi, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical policy.

"The military is a macho institution," he said in an interview. "There is the perception that if I let them know I'm weak they won't want me around."

It is that stigma which the Army hopes to eliminate.

"To be effective, you must be willing to stand before your soldiers and tell them with sincerity that it takes a strong, courageous person to admit to having emotional problems and seek help for suicidal feelings," the Army says in a new booklet, "Suicide Prevention: Could I Have Done More?"

On the Net: Army suicide policy: www.odcsper.army.mil/default.asp?pageid66f

Shinseki's message on suicide: http://www.dtic.mil/soldiers/HotTopics/HTMay2000/HtMay2000.html