Suicides Surging Among American Troops

After a decade of war, suicides are surging among American troops.

ABC News is out with a report that suicides among American troops are at what can only be considered an unacceptable rate:

Suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war.

The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press.

The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago. The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other misbehavior.

Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.

The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.

(…)

The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.

Suicide totals have exceeded U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in earlier periods, including for the full years 2008 and 2009.

The suicide pattern varies over the course of a year, but in each of the past five years the trend through May was a reliable predictor for the full year, according to a chart based on figures provided by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.

There’s much more at the link, and none of it is pretty.

One of the prices of a military that has been at war for a decade, and which was being deployed in minor actions in the Balkans and Somalia for the decade before that, is not only that the military gets stretched at the material level, but that the men doing the fighting get pushed further to the brink then we’ve  ever asked any other group of fighting men to do before. Only Vietnam compares to the length of time that we’ve been at a war so far and, even now, we’re not scheduled to be fully disengaged from combat operations until 2014. At least in Vietnam, though, the practice of sending soldiers back to the theater of operations multiple times was not nearly as common. In some sense, then, we’re just learning now what that kind of continual mental and physical stress can do to a person, even one in the kind of top-notch physical condition that combat soldiers typically are.

Not being a medical professional, I am not going to even attempt to guess at what might be causing this rash of suicides. It’s worth noting, however, that suicide itself is typically a result of serious mental health problems that are not being adequately addressed. Whether this is coming about because of prolonged exposure to combat, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Depression that goes untreated is unclear, but all three could certainly be part of what leads an otherwise healthy person to kill themselves. When it’s happening in the field, it likely means that superiors either aren’t paying attention to signs that those under them may be at the end of their rope, or, more likely, that they simply haven’t been adequately trained in recognizing the signals of someone who is this deeply troubled and knowing what to do for them. If nothing else, this should be a signal to the Pentagon that much more attention needs to be paid to these issues, and to the mental health problems that War On Terror combat veterans might experience in the future. Otherwise, we’d just be abandoning these men the same way that others abandoned the men who came home from Vietnam.

FILED UNDER: Health, Military Affairs, National Security
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. jan says:

    I just find this story incredibly sad. What I’ve heard, several years back now, is that PTSD is rampant among those returning from combat duty. Also, these ex-vets contact illnesses in which the etiology is unknown. My godson came back with some kind of intestinal problem that has created havoc in his life — and has gone undiagnosed, thus far. Maybe the stress encountered over there breaks down the immune system which accounts for the cropping up of these problems.

  2. mattb says:

    @jan:

    What I’ve heard, several years back now, is that PTSD is rampant among those returning from combat duty.

    The sad fact is that soldiers have always come back with PTSD — its just that we didn’t talk about it.

    And in a stressed volunteer military, there has been significant pressure to ignore PTSD issues in order to be able to redeploy soldiers. In many cases this hasn’t been some dastardly plan, more an expression of a certain type of Warrior-Tough Military culture mixed with a general American reluctance to believe that mental illnesses are legitimate.

    For those interested in this subject, since at least 2006/7 NPR has done banner in depth reporting work on the politics of PTSD and redeployment. It’s sad that the issue of soldier suicides is only reaching this level of attention now.

  3. mike says:

    @mattb: I don’t agree that it is only getting a lot of attention now. The previous Vice Chief of Staff of the Army has done a lot of high profile work on PTSD and suicide for years including making sure it got a lot of attention in the news, setting up a full time task for headed by SESs and a Major General, hiring a lot of additional mental health workers, and coming up with initiatives to get rid of the stigma of seeking mental health treatment.

  4. mattb says:

    @mattb:

    The sad fact is that soldiers have always come back with PTSD — its just that we didn’t talk about it.

    I just realized that I didn’t finish that thought. The problem, in not historically recognizing PTSD as a real and regular outcome of seeing combat, is that it ostracized people suffering from it. A lot of “the greatest generation” came home with deep mental wounds that they were expected to tough out without much support.

    And if they were “able to do it”* then why couldn’t those hippie wimps in Vietnam deal with their experiences? Not to mention they were all claiming shell shock just to get out of combat. Keep projecting that forward and you end up with the current culture that the command is desperately trying to change.

    * – It’s important to note that a lot of WWII vets never came back completely or dealt with the mental scars of the war for the rest of their lives. I have a personal connection on this one: my father in law was a vet who saw a lot of combat in Europe and carried a lot of invisible wounds.

    BTW, for a great and touching dramatization of how deep the scars of WWII run, I suggest watching “The Straight Story.” About two-thirds of the way in there’s a really profound scene in which two older men characters who just met go out for coffee and quietly tell each other stories about what happened to them over there. It’s not explicitly said (at least I don’t think it was), but the connotation of the scene is that these are stories that they couldn’t share with anyone else because you needed to have experienced War to understand War. I’m pretty sure both actors were WWII vets (I know one definitely was), which only deepens the quality of the scene.

  5. mattb says:

    @mike: When I mean “now”, I should say the last decade (or two) at best.

    I think the Military is doing a lot of amazing work. And I hope more will continue to be done.

    I think the problem — especially for those civilians (and Chicken Hawks) who have in insulated from much of the real cost of war — is that this is seen as a modern problem (post Vietnam .. and aguably post Desert Storm) rather than recognizing that PTSD has always been with us.

  6. DRS says:

    I would suggest that one of the things we can all do is contact our congress critters and let them know how important it is that the federal budget address mental health issues in the armed forces. And then to keep on them about the issue. If everyone who has one of those “remember the troops” ribbons or bumperstickers on their cars did this once a month for about a year, that would indicate to our representatives that they can’t get away from the issue. And during an election year, it’s the perfect time.

  7. LCB says:

    What is the percentage of suicides per the same number of civilian adults as in the military? I’m sure the military could do more to help, but in any large group there will be a certain percentage of suicides. I would be surprised if the military numbers are NOT higher than civilians. But articles like this never say.

  8. Eric H says:

    @LCB:
    CBS did a similar story and said that the rise in suicides in the military is also happening to those in the civilian world. They were saying that the rough economic times are contributing to the rise in both the civilian and military population. One fact that CBS also put in their story was that almost half of those in the military that committed suicide had never been deployed overseas to a warzone. That possibly makes PTSD a factor in only half the deaths, which is still too high for a military that is winding down operations in a war zone.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-57449255/military-suicides-grow-at-sharp-rate/

  9. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    Based on my all-expense-paid tour of sunny Southeast Asia, I came up with a theory that theorized that some, then inductees (and I certainly don’t mean any criticism of our most perfectly perfected “all-volunteer” military policy), already had “one foot in the bucket” before they went into the military and that the subsequent military stressors were sufficient to drive them to some form of damage or self-harm. While suicides may make the most dramatic headlines, soldiers do themselves other forms of harm to remove themselves from what it is that they think they can no longer handle. For instance, my platoon had an M-79 grenadier who upon receiving the proverbial “Dear John” letter (which is not to preclude today’s “Dear Joan” or “Dear John from Joe” letters) got a hold of another soldier’s M-16 and in attempting to shoot off his big toe actually shot off a big piece of his foot and earned himself an extensive hospitalization along with a personal court-martial.

    It seems to me that, in spite of the suspension of the military draft for young men, the disparagement of military services in our media continues without abatement. Nowadays, most media stories about our military manage to identify the resulting dangers and difficulties, with PTSD being by far the media favorite. I see a good bit of this as part of the hollowing out of our military, a kind of “Long March” through our military institutions, with an objective of eventually demilitarizing our country. Our young men are being taught, either directly or indirectly, that they do not have an individual responsibility to protect their country and their fellow countrypersons. There will always be “volunteers” who for some, probably unseemly reason, will accept the responsibility and they can just kick back and enjoy their time resting on the “commons” or playing video games in their parents’ basement or even, if they’re really lucky, working for a non-profit.

    As this process progresses, (and progress is certainly what progressives so love that they would… well almost…lay down their lives for their fellow person), the “volunteer” pool probably shrinks some and, similar to the later years of the Viet Nam war, today’s self-selectees probably vary more from the psychological mean, standard deviation wise. (One of the things that interested me after Osama bin Laden’s well-earned demise, was the lack of any stories about military recruitment increases, you know, “to finish the job”. (Lessons have been learned.) In fact, during the previous administration, there were actually attempts to close down recruiting stations, you know, to prevent people from “volunteering”. Thus, recruitment standards might well be fudged a bit to make the goal lest all those general and flag officers have to admit that maybe a “volunteer” military isn’t necessarily the “best of all possible” militaries, thereby jeopardizing their next star. One might posit young Bradley Manning as a case in point.

    I think “LCB”, in his above comment, identifies the manipulative aspect of these reports. While we get ample reason for another bout of breast-beating and perhaps, a genuflection or two, we don’t get much perspective. How do these rates compares to similarly aged individuals in the general population? Now that might be a breast-beating stopper if I ever heard one. And what percentage are suicides of the troops in the field, Afghanistan, as opposed to troops not in the field? Or, perhaps, in combat arms units versus the rest? No perspective need apply seems to be in operative approach.

    If the dark days of the Iraq war, of extended tours, of multiple tours, of extended multiple tours, weren’t proof enough to establish that an “all-volunteer” military is not sufficient, then I’m sure that my words will have little effect. If the acceptance of 15 or more percent females in our military, does not give you pause, then I’m sure this comment won’t either.

    But please spare me the protestations while you accept the ease and comfort provided by others.