The number of suicides in the ranks of the U.S. military has more than doubled since 9/11.
According to data released unofficially by the Pentagon on Monday, there were 349 suicides in the U.S. military in 2012, nearly one a day. That’s 118% more than 2001’s 160 suicides, and marks the Pentagon’s highest annual self-inflicted death toll ever.
Three-hundred-and-ten U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in 2012.
(MORE: A Suicide After-Action Report)
One perished in Iraq.
Three-hundred-and-forty-nine died at their own hands, a Pentagon official said Monday.
Seems only fitting. After all, there was a surge of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007, followed by a surge into Afghanistan in 2010. So a surge in suicides – from 301 in 2011 to 349 last year, a 16% increase – follows a pattern.
We’ve tried making sense of the U.S. military’s suicide scourge since it began spiking northward several years ago. We’ve written of those who killed themselves, those who killed their families along with themselves, and, last week, veterans who have done so.
Every suicide is unique. But there are common threads. The post-9/11 stress of military life is real, even if some of those in uniform have never been in a war zone. In many cases – certainly those we’ve written about – war has often led to post-traumatic stress, to depression, and to behavioral problems that can lead to broken relationships. There’s a synergy there that can end in suicide. But for everyone who takes his own life (95% of troops who kill themselves are male), there are hundreds facing the same challenges who don’t.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has detailed the many factors at play. “Part of this is the impact of over 10 years of war and the stress that’s involved in deployment after deployment after deployment after deployment,” he said in November. Suicide in the broader society is up as well, he said, and that is reflected in the Pentagon’s rise. “Part of it due to family stress, part of it due to drinking, part of it due to drugs, part of it due to financial stress and there are a whole series of issues that play a role in creating this kind of pressure.” He said he wished there were “a simple silver bullet that could deal with the problem,” but acknowledged there isn’t.
The Army’s former top psychiatrist senses another dynamic at play. “In recent years, I have seen a real fear on the part of soldiers that if they reveal that there is anything wrong, they will be the ones left behind,” Elspeth Ritchie, a Battleland contributor, said Monday. “Left behind literally, as the rest of the unit deploys. And thus left behind on promotion, and on retention.” That, she says, can push them over the edge.
This latest surge should come as no surprise. In 2010, the Pentagon’s own medical monitors said there was “a large, widespread, and growing mental health problem among U.S. military members.” In 2011, military doctors reported that suicidal thoughts had soared among military personnel hospitalized between 2006 and 2010. Last year, Pentagon doctors found that “in 2011 mental disorders accounted for more hospitalizations of U.S. service members than any other major category of diagnoses.” Hospitalizations for mental ailments, they noted, had jumped by more than 50% since 2007.
We wrote about suicide in the military before 9/11. But they were stories because they were so rare. Now they’re stories because they are so common.