2012 Army suicides are highest on record

Suicides, 2012/2011
Army (includes Guard and Reserve) 303/283
Navy (includes Reserves) 62/59
Marines 46/32
Air Force (includes Guard and Reserves) 71/70
Coast Guard (includes Reserves) 6/7
*Data reported by each military branch as of December 2012
“Why Soldiers Keep Losing to Suicide,” at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/why-soldiers-keep-losing-to-suicide/. (Remaining quotes in this post are from that article unless noted otherwise.)

[COMMENT: Reported data on military suicides are conflicting. You will see that from the article cited above, the DOD news release, and the article on suicide in Marine Corps spec ops added below. There is no statistical standard for reporting suicide data.]

“In spite of the increased loss of life to suicide, with calendar year 2012 being our highest on record, the Army is confident that through our continued emphasis in the services, programs, policies, and training that support our Army family, we will overcome this threat to our Force,” said Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, deputy chief of Army Staff, Manpower and Personnel. (DOD news release, February 1, 2013, http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=15797.) Suicides have increased across all the services (except for the Coast Guard, which is down by one), but the greatest increase in numbers is seen in the Army; however, the greatest increase by percentage is in the Marine Corps (Army, percentage increase, 07; Marine Corps, 36).

Indeed, what else can Gen. Bromberg say? “We give up?”

No one can yet pinpoint a cause, or causes, of the increasing rate of suicides in the armed forces. In one notorious case, the cause was torturous bullying by other comarades-in-arms. In some, active duty personnel who kill themselves have been on several deployments; some have been on one; most have never been deployed. (See blog post “The Tragedy of ‘Captains Courageous,” July 12, 2012.) According to an excellent article on the subject, published 12 December 2012:

“About 53 percent of those who died by suicide in the military in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, had no history of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the Defense Department. And nearly 85 percent of military members who took their lives had no direct combat history, meaning they may have been deployed but not seen action.” Last June Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that we have to look to “societal issues” to explain the increase in military suicides. http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=116867.

But others say differently:

Even though direct exposure to combat is not a principal factor, a three-year study about to be published found that “(t)he military’s suicide problem seems to be rooted partly in the strain of war. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for 11 years, most of them while also battling a protracted insurgency in Iraq. Deployments for many service members were extended, sometimes up to 15 months.

“That stress has increased the burden on all service members, regardless of whether they’ve been deployed, said Craig Bryan, a psychology professor and associate director of the National Center of Veterans’ Studies at the University of Utah, where he studies the link between military stress and suicide….One thing he noticed: stress levels across the military began rising in 2004, even among those who hadn’t deployed, along with the suicide rate.

“’Even if I’m not deployed, if everyone else at my base is, there are less people around to do the same jobs,” Bryan said. “I have more work that I have to accomplish. If I’m not deploying … everyone else is going and I’m left behind, I’m not pulling my weight.’”

“I’m not pulling my weight….” Those words have far more meaning to active military personnel than to the rest of society subject to “societal issues.”

“…(I)n in May, a blunt blog post by Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, the commander of Fort Bliss, Texas, summed up the sentiment that some victims’ advocates say remains pervasive in the military.

“’I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act,” Pittard wrote, in comments that have since been scrubbed from the website. “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.’”

Kim Ruocco, director for suicide outreach for survivors at the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, responds: “When you say someone’s a malingerer, dropping their pack, it’s a weak thing to do — it completely sets everybody back.” Ruocco’s husband, a Marine major, committed suicide after flying 70 missions in Iraq–“worried that if his commanders knew he was struggling, they would think he wasn’t strong enough to go back to war.”

Plus, the accelerated pace of deployments results in a lack of connection among troops and their leaders. “These sergeants will tell me, ‘We’re moving so fast, I don’t have time, I don’t know my men and women,’” said Dr. Elspeth Ritchie, previously the Army’s top psychiatrist and now the chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia’s mental health department. Ritchie studied the past 10 years of suicides in the Army.

“The sergeants who in the past took care of the new kids are so busy preparing for the next (deployment), there just isn’t the same sense of cohesion that we used to have,” said Ritchie.

Marines, because of their ingrained history and culture, may find it particularly hard to ask for help. If that is the case, let us hope that the planned drawdown in Afghanistan will result in a slowing of the pace of deployments and of the concomitant burden that rapid deployments place on the non-deployed, thus also resulting in a drop in the rate of suicides. Otherwise, if the suicide rates continue their increase, God help the armed forces–and particularly the Marine Corps.

ADDED: Responding to a self-described Army veteran Georgetown student, who asked what “the Department of Defense and our lawmakers” will do to combat suicide among veterans, Secretary Panetta responded:

“It is one of the most tragic issues that we deal with right now in the military,” the secretary responded. The rate of suicide among troops and former troops mirrors that of greater society, he noted, but added, “There is no question in my mind that part of this is related to the stress of war over the last 10 years, [and] the fact that we have deployed people time and time again.” American Forces Press Service press release, 6 Feb 2013, at http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=119217.

ADDED: (Marine Corps) Spec ops troops’ stress ‘worse than we thought’
http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2012/12/gannett-stress-on-special-ops-troops-worse-than-thought-122012/.

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