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Grim Record: Soldier Suicides Reach New High

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A record number of soldiers – 38 – are suspected of killing themselves in July, the Pentagon said Thursday. It marks a startling jump in the suicide epidemic that has been frustrating Army leaders for years.

The total included 26 active-duty soldiers – under the Army’s control 24/7 — also an apparent record, and a 117% jump from June’s count of 12 active-duty suicides.

(MORE: This Isn’t Funny…)

The Army has been fighting suicides when they were occurring at the rate of nearly one a day – in fact, that was the cover line on a Time story last month into the vexing problem of soldiers killing themselves after a decade of war. But July’s 38 likely suicides spread over the month’s 31 days works out to almost 1.25 suicides a day.

The toll was 58% higher than June’s 24 suspected suicides, and is roughly 50% more than the average monthly suicide count experienced over the past 18 months.

Military suicide data has only been kept diligently in recent years; non-active duty suicides have only been tracked for about five years. So that makes historical comparisons difficult. But the numbers are the highest since 9/11, and several experts believe they mark an all-time high. “The number 26 [of active-duty suicides] is the highest single month we’ve had since 2001,” Bruce Shahbaz, a medical analyst on the Army’s Suicide Prevention Task Force, told Time Thursday morning. “The combined total [38] of both active and reserve is the highest we’ve had since 2001.”

Army experts come up empty-handed when trying to account for the surge, although they are noting a shift among suicide victims. “This is the first time since 2001 where we’ve seen non-commissioned officer deaths outnumbering junior enlisted deaths,” Shahbaz says. He and other Army suicide experts have what he concedes is a  “very counter-intuitive” explanation.

Battleland graphics lab based on Army data

They suggest this is happening as the NCOs — more likely to be married, and in the Army for the long haul, than younger troops — begin spending more time at home between deployments. “If you’re on the constant 12-month treadmill of deploy, reset, get ready to redeploy, deploy, soldiers and families don’t work hard to try to reintegrate, because they know that their soldier is going to be gone again,” Shahbaz says. “Issues like minor depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances – those things that are kind of related to post-traumatic stress – begin to surface after a service member has been home for more than a year, and start to reintegrate with their family…I liken it to a pot that’s on simmer – having that person stay back home and reintegrate with their family sometimes allows that pot to boil over.”

Retired Army colonel Elspeth Ritchie, once the service’s top psychiatrist and a key warrior fighting Army suicides, fears the toll won’t abate any time soon. “One of the risk factors for suicide is getting in trouble at work,” says Ritchie, now a Battleland contributor. “As the Army downsizes, the getting in trouble may translate into more soldiers facing discharge and possible unemployment,” she says. “Another risk factor is trouble with relationships. After a decade of war, going from having a spouse away most of the time — to being at home all the time — actually may make things worse. Especially if the spouse is underemployed.”

(COVER STORY: The War on Suicide?)

Those fighting the battle from outside the Army remain dissatisfied in light of the latest suicide count. “Soldiers and their families are falling apart under the pressures, expectations, injuries and illnesses of years of war,” says Kim Ruocoo, who runs the suicide outreach program at the non-profit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. “We should expect our troops to need psychological care after all we have asked of them, yet there is still a sense that asking for help is a weak thing and should be avoided. As a result soldiers are waiting until they are very sick before they go for help and very often the response is not quick enough or comprehensive enough.”

Retired general Peter Chiarelli, who until January was the Army’s No. officer and top suicide fighter, remained frustrated in a recent interview. “Our suicide rate has doubled since 2001, and it’s obvious that deployments and stress on the force plays a role in this –- there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “The doubling of our suicide rate coincided with our fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s got to be a contributor.”

But it’s bigger than that, he believes. Mental-health problems have never gotten the study – and the resulting research funding – given to cancer and heart disease, he says. “We’ve under-invested in this area for so goddam long, and one of the reasons is because of the stigma associated with it,” Chiarelli says. “No one wants to admit that Uncle Al killed himself.” That’s one of the reasons Chiarelli has gone back to work leading One Mind for Research, an independent, non-profit organization bringing together health care providers, researchers, academics and the health care industry to cure brain disorders.

The challenge of soldiers trained to kill turning their guns on themselves – firearms remain the method of choice for most Army suicides – has gotten the Pentagon’s attention. “This issue – suicides — is perhaps the most frustrating challenge that I’ve come across since becoming secretary of defense,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the military’s 4th annual suicide-prevention conference June 22. “Despite the increased efforts, the increased attention, the trends continued to move in a troubling and tragic direction.”

“This is not just an Army problem – this is a national problem,” Shahbaz says, referring to a new Centers for Disease Control report showing that nearly 37,000 Americans killed themselves in 2009. While suicide rates for both troops and their age-adjusted civilian counterparts have been comparable in past years, that’s not the case so far into 2012: the Army rate stands at 29 suicides-per-100,000, nearly 60% higher than the civilian rate of 18.5 in 2009, the most recent available.

Shahbaz, like most every Pentagon expert on suicide, encourages anyone thinking of taking his or her own life to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; press 1 if you are in the military or in a military family. “These folks do amazing work,” he says of those who pick up the phone at the other end. “They are angels when it comes to helping soldiers and families in crisis.”

(READ: U.S. Military Suicide Rate Now Double or Triple Civil War’s)

Suicides have spiked since 2005, even as the war in Iraq has ended, and the conflict in Afghanistan begins to wind down. The drip-drip-drip of statistics tells the story: mental-health problems were the top reason troops were hospitalized last year, according to a May Pentagon report. Nearly 22,000 troops were hospitalized with mental disorders last year, 54% more than in 2007. Suicides, the military’s medical command noted in June, have now eclipsed motor-vehicle accidents as the leading non-combat cause of death among U.S. troops.

The specific triggers for suicide vary by individual. But for those in uniform, the stresses associated with a decade at war – and the frequent deployments and family separation they entail – play a role. Yet many troops who have never deployed also are killing themselves.

The Pentagon is training troops in resiliency to weather dark moods, establishing suicide hotlines, bolstering its ranks of mental-health workers on the battlefield and at home. The Army has launched a $50 million investigation into the suicide surge and how to stop it.

“Our people are our most valuable resource and we are very committed to taking care of them,” Jackie Garrick, who runs the new Defense Suicide Prevention Office, told Time recently. “We just need to make sure that we’re getting that word out, and the services and the service members at all levels are fully engaged in trying to address this issue.”

But, Chiarelli insists, it can’t be done without more research and resources. “We have a crisis in the military,” he says, caused by a lack of money and knowledge to deal with the mental-health challenges created by 10 years of combat. “We just don’t know enough,” he says flatly. “And until we do, we will all remain frustrated.”

MORE: Why Are There So Many Military Suicides?

24 comments
exarmymom
exarmymom

The bigger picture is the problem. My son was fine when after 6 years in the military and 14 months in Iraq came home for good. He had minor PTSD issues from noises and explosions, and was having difficulty sleeping, but no real issues...unitl about a year after.  The reintegration process has not been easy.  He has been unable to find work, he tried a semester of college but navigating the GI bill paperwork was a nightmare and he was forced to miss the next semester bc it wasnt processed and the school was not paid and would not allow him to register until it was for another semester.  That in itself is horrible buerocracy.  As a result, he was without school, no job and lots of time on his hands.  The drinking started out slow, on his "bad" days and gradually increased to every day.  Then the depression set in.  He tried the usual solutions at the VA, none of which had any effect.  And since then, no one has followed up with him or tried to find out how he is doing.  Its like they are so overwhelmed they dont have time to deal with the situtation there.  He needs help and coaching, but now he is at the point where he just doesnt care anymore.  He still has not gotten a job, and not for not trying and hitting the pavement.  Its like he has tossed in the towl and says now he only feels good when drinking and partying with hs boys.  Its very difficult to watch.  But whats worse is he refuses help now and wont seek it out.  So what can we do on the outside to prevent this?  There needs to be an outside group that monitors soldiers for reintegration progess..not just kiss them goodbye after there service time is done and wish them well on thier way.  So now the battle shifts from the battlefield to the home.  these soldiers have fought for our freedom.  Now we are left to fight for their lives and in many cases without anywhere to turn.

US_Army_Veteran
US_Army_Veteran

I think because we have an all volunteer military the rest of society does not bear the burden of war . Bring back the draft and let the people drafted be the ones that go off and fight, let the volunteer servicemen and women get the better assignments.

Hypatia Hypatia
Hypatia Hypatia

Bring them the hell HOME from those Asian wars, and don't do any more of those pointless and counterproductive "bringing democracy" to places that have no background for having it imposed from above.   Democracy has to grow organically from within -- even assuming it is the optimum form of government for all peoples.

Scott Strausbaugh
Scott Strausbaugh

It's not because of soldiers comming home, being redeployed, etc like this article states. That's been going on forever, so to use that as a scapegoat is nothing short of pathetic. Soldiers are killing themselves because they are realizing everything they fought for, lost friends for, etc. was for a lie. Al Qaida is now our allies? Like wtf... something weird is definately going on over there.

Navydog1992
Navydog1992

As an active duty Navy sailor, I'd like to say it's not just PTSD. There are dozens of people on my ship every month either threatening or actually committing suicide. The conditions we live in are miserable.. Working 10 hours straight in what is basically a floating oven as there is no air conditioning currently. We do physical labor all day. We get yelled at and treated like pieces of dirt by those above us. They do not care about how we are handling things or that we'd like to have time to see our loved ones. The ones who are supposed to care about us most, our captains and chiefs do not think back to the time we were in their shoes. They can leave the ship whenever they want to go home. Us lower ranking people have to deal with the stress of a huge list of tasks that if it's not accomplished, we get chewed out. Basically, this all boils down to the amount of stress a person can handle. Our leaders need to be able to spot a sailor, soldier, airman, whatever they may be, in distress, rather than working us to the bone and sipping on their coffee.

earthynaturegal
earthynaturegal

Although I am a parent and my soldier is my daughter, I know that this issue is very real for too many of our soldiers and loved ones.  I had to access Military One Source during my daughter's most recent deployment and had a very disappointing experience.  The amount of stress our soldiers are under is unbelievable.  My daughter finally graduated from college this year and was fortunate to secure a decent job in state government.  However, she has had to take off time for her Army Reserve obligations that are not optional for her, and although her management doesn't express their displeasure with this, they are clearly not happy about.  She worries about the fact that she has to take leave without pay, she has had no vacation this year because of weeks of Army commitments, and her colleagues resent her having to take time off from work.  It is frustrating to see her go through this when she is so committed to being not only an exceptional employee, but an equally exceptional soldier.  I don't think that civilians understand and from what I have seen the military does not.  The Army is requiring soldiers to fulfill military obligations on the soldier's own time because of budgetary shortfalls.  I guess that is what is meant by "volunteering for duty"?  Unfortunately I know of too many government contractors raking in enormous salaries with little or no stress at all and there seems to be very little left for our soldiers.

earthynaturegal
earthynaturegal

Although I am a parent and my soldier is my daughter, I know that this issue is very real for too many of our soldiers and loved ones.  I had to access Military One Source during my daughter's most recent deployment and had a very disappointing experience.  The amount of stress our soldiers are under is unbelievable.  My daughter finally graduated from college this year and was fortunate to secure a decent job in state government.  However, she has had to take off time for her Army Reserve obligations that are not optional for her, and although her management doesn't express their displeasure with this, they are clearly not happy about it or necessarily supportive.  She worries about the fact that she has to take leave without pay, she has had no vacation this year because of weeks of Army commitments, and her colleagues resent her having to take time off from work.  It is frustrating to see her go through this when she is so committed to being not only an exceptional employee, but an equally exceptional soldier.  I don't think that civilians understand and from what I have seen the military does not.  The Army is requiring soldiers to fulfill military obligations on the soldier's own time because of budgetary shortfalls.  I guess that is what is meant by "volunteering for duty"?  Unfortunately I know of too many government contractors raking in enormous salaries with little or no stress at all and there seems to be very little left for our soldiers.  

Debbie Ledford
Debbie Ledford

The  huge problem with under reporting of mental health problems among out troops has a lot to do with the repercussions on those who seek treatment. Not only are mental health problems traditionally looked on as a sign on weakness, but the suffering soldier has to weigh the distinct possibility of being involuntarily discharged from the military. A typical infantry position in the army doesn't easily translate into employment at home. Imagine being mentally ill, depressed and you've lost your job and the status that came with it. When I served in the navy during peace time  I was trained as  a pharmacy technician and a medic. Even with these qualifications it was difficult to get work in the civilian market because most of the training I had didn't translate in to the job market. I was lucky and someone gave me a chance to prove myself. 

Jeff WayRock
Jeff WayRock

I'm thinking that the high rate of suicide probably has a connection with both TBI's (Traumatic Brain Injuries) in some cases, and the consumption of synthetic 'designer drugs' (which are hard to detect with standard drug tests and thus are more attractive to inclined military personnel than typical drugs) in others.

MrObvious
MrObvious

It marks a startling jump in the suicide epidemic that has been frustrating Army leaders for years.

Imagine how 'frustrated' the soldiers loved ones are.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

I hear a great way to stop war fatigue and PTSD is to not engage in combat/hostilities/war.

AfGuyReturns
AfGuyReturns

What's frustrating about it? That they STILL think they can "legislate" a solution with simply more money is the frustrating part. We're in "uncharted" territory here...

That those kids still suffer depression about the prospects of repeated deployments and endless warfare, and few job possibilities on the outside... regardless of the attempts by politicians to "thank them for their service" and tell them how good they have it? Many went into the military because of a lack of viable job opportunities on the outside, and THAT situation isn't getting any better. So, they are faced with another round of deployments, family separation and death.

Reporting  for counseling is a "career killer".  After all, to the outside world, all that training is supposed to make them immune from such psychological issues.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©
ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

But wars for corporate profits are doing great, so don't expect either of our big political parties to change a thing.

Jill Stein 2012.

~

anonguest7619
anonguest7619

as long as depression counseling is required to be reported on the

security clearance questionnaire, people will either avoid or have

ambivalent feelings about counseling. No one can get help if they don't

feel safe and comfortable talking to their counselors. And day after day

people will continue to kill themselves. 

AfGuyReturns
AfGuyReturns

Bingo!  But bringing back the draft is NOT a popular proposal, even among supposed "liberals".

The oft-stated reason is that we in this country want the "freedom to choose" EVERYTHING.  One of the unspoken reasons is that too many don't want to have to make the choice between service (of some sort) or inventing "reasons" why they are unfit for fighting and must be allowed to pursue that lucrative career back home.  (Wouldn't we all want to do THAT?)

 I'm sure it would be revealing to find how many would decide they were "unsuited for combat" if given the choice to make themselves. A draft with only exemptions for EXTREME circumstances would be the way to go.

They want the "freedom" to "tut-tut" about people evading service through loopholes in any "draft" while wanting the option of using them themselves, esp. if the real possibility exists of having to go into a warzone and face REAL shooting.

I still get the "thank you for your service" from the clerks in stores and honestly, would rather they did not.  Not because I don't think the sentiment isn't heart-felt, but because I would rather it be unnecessary to say.  If EVERYONE were required to serve in some capacity, saying "thanks" would be redundant and unnecessary.

Hypatia Hypatia
Hypatia Hypatia

 So let's hope that, despite the grim economic situation that drives youngsters to enlist for a living -- let's hope that before they sign up, they take some time to study up on these lies that the Cheney/Rumsfeld spin factory fed the nation.  These corporate wars that killed so many gullible kids were NOT "patriotic"; they were cynical and incompetent and uninformed all at the same time.

BTW - Stateside recruiting sergeants also have an unusually high suicide rate purportedly because of the pressures placed on them.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

Stopping PTSD isn't enough:

“This is not just an Army problem – this is a national problem,” Shahbaz says, referring to a new Centers for Disease Control report showing that nearly 37,000 Americans killed themselves in 2009. Once adjusted to reflect the age of Army personnel, he says, the suicide rates of both groups is comparable.
The fact is, our culture and the many of the people who live within it, are growing sicker and more desperate. Draw your own conclusions about why that is happening and what we should do about it. Perhaps there is simply no more "Post" in Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder in much of society.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

I don't think it's a coincidence that said age-bracket also coincides with many young men and women that are crushed under student loans, mounting debt, and inability to find work.  Younger generations these days have it pretty rough.

O_No
O_No

you are wrong. depression counseling is required to be reported under Q21 of the security clearance questionnaire. You have to report any noncombat related counseling.  Otherwise I would have gotten help already rather than trying to suck it up day after day (at one point seriously contemplating bad things). I didn't want my boss to know I was in therapy. My depression still is pretty bad.

USAFJAG
USAFJAG

@totalitat-you are wrong. Question 21 of the SF 6 asks whether in the past 7 years you have received mental health counseling. Combat related PTSD, grief, and family counseling are exempt from disclosure. The DoD has specifically said that all other forms of counseling, to include depression and rape related PTSD, are not exempt. How do I know this? Because I had to describe my own rape and subsequent counseling (which involved weekly therapy)in explicit detail to an OPM investigator in order to get my clearance.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"Younger generations these days have it pretty rough."

How true and how sad for all of us. Those who survive may be haunted by it their entire lives, and all of society will pay the price. As it happens, many boomers over 50 aren't exactly having a picnic right now either but perhaps have a better ability to cope with the tragedy.

totalitat
totalitat

Question 21 asks "In the last 7 years, have you consulted with a health care professional and received a diagnosis as mentally unstable or incompetent? "

AND received a diagnosis, not merely that you've received counseling.

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