According to Reuters, U.S. Army suicide rates are at their highest since the military first began tracking them in 1980. With 128 soldiers having committed suicide in 2008, and 15 additional deaths still under investigation, this is the first time the number of military suicides has been higher than the adjusted rate of suicide in the general civilian population since Vietnam.
The confirmed rate of suicides was 20.2 per 100,000. Army officials were reviewing the suspected suicides Wednesday. If any of them are confirmed, the rate will rise.
[. . .]
The Army is expected to announce a new effort to study the problem and determine why its suicide-prevention programs appear not to be working, and the extent to which post-combat stress may be a contributing factor. Many of the suicides occur after troops return home.
Suicide rates among other active-duty military personnel are also on the rise.
The continuing rise in Army suicides was first reported Wednesday by NBC News and msnbc.com, which found that the problem is reflected across the military services. Forty-one Marines committed suicides last year, up from 33 in 2007, while the Navy and the Air Force saw smaller increases, defense officials told NBC News on condition of anonymity.
In addition to battlefield stress, a number of risk factors have been identified:
Defense officials have not released overall suicide statistics in the military, but the numbers for Marines also reportedly rose in 2008. Army doctors said that troubles with intimate relationships, poor job performance, alcohol or drug abuse sparked some of the suicides. Stress from long deployments and multiple tours can play a role, often straining relationships at home; some soldiers have killed themselves after returning home and receiving new deployment orders, the Army confirmed.
The stress of multiple deployments seems to be one of the most significant contributors. Our troops are under intense, unprecedented stress due to long, repeated tours of duty. They are being redeployed in some instances as many as four or five times.
Multiple combat deployments to Iraq are increasing serious mental health problems among soldiers, triggering drug and alcohol abuse and contributing to record suicide levels, suggest reports out Thursday at the American Psychological Association meeting in Boston.
In a typical unit headed to Iraq, 60 percent are on their second, third or fourth deployment, lasting about a year each, says U.S. Army Col. Carl Castro, who directs a medical research program at Fort Detrick, Md.
More time in Iraq means heavier exposure to violence, which leads more soldiers to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, Castro told the psychology meeting. By their third tour to Iraq, more than a quarter of soldiers show signs of mental problems, such as PTSD, and it’s about 1 out of 3 for those exposed to heavy combat, according to a U.S. Army Surgeon General report in March on more than 2,000 soldiers.
Failed relationships may be the primary cause of many of these suicides, and multiple deployments appear to increase the fragility of already strained relationships.
Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army’s surgeon general, told reporters that the main cause of suicides is failed relationships.
Those relationships are strained by long and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ritchie said.
“All too commonly, a soldier will get a “Dear John” or a “Dear Jane” e-mail and then go and shoot themselves,” Ritchie said, “and that is often very hard to prevent.”
Each death is tragic, and the fact that our soldiers are being driven to this, the ultimate expression of despair, strikes me as a national disgrace. Clearly, we are failing somewhere. Failing to take care of our troops, failing to get them the help they require, failing to give them the aid they deserve:
In fairness to the U.S. military, steps are being taken to remedy this epidemic. There are many obstacles to be overcome, not least among them is the stigma of seeking mental health services. Many still consider it a sign of weakness to seek counseling, and in order for our men and women in uniform to seek help when they need it, this perception must change. In February the Army will begin teaching the troops how to recognize signs of mental and emotional decline in their fellow soldiers, in the hopes that early detection of the problem might allow these men and women to attain the help they so desperately need.
The Army said it would conduct a “stand-down” between Feb. 15 and March 15 to train soldiers to recognize suicidal behavior and how to intervene at a soldier-to-soldier level.
“We want the families who have lost loved ones to suicide to understand how deeply we feel their loss and that we are committed to doing everything possible to prevent this tragedy in our Army,” Army Secretary Pete Geren said.
The Army is funding a study on suicide with the National Institute of Mental Health and is taking what preventative measures it has available in the meantime.
In October, the Army announced it would embark on a $50 million study with the National Institute of Mental Health – the largest suicide study ever by the military. On Thursday it announced plans to step up its suicide training regimen, and ordered a “Stand Down” for suicide outreach beginning Feb. 15 that is designed to reach every soldier. However, the Army already has added hundreds of psychiatrists and psychologists and pushed videos and training through the ranks, with no sign of a turnaround.
“We know we’re working very hard, very fast. … None of us has all the answers,” said Col. Elspeth Ritchie of the Army Surgeon General’s Office.
Some think the nature of the wars and long deployments has placed soldiers at greater risk. By one estimate, 300,000 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
But it’s not just our active-duty soldiers who are suffering. Some, even those who fervently seek help, are being neglected or ignored upon their return home. Kevin Lucey, father of former Marine Jeffrey M. Lucey who hung himself 11 months after returning home from Iraq, vividly recounts the night before his young son — who did not receive the treatment he sought from the Veterans Administration — took his own life:
The night before, “Jeffrey asked if he could sit in my lap and if we could rock,” Lucey said. “It was about 11:30 at night. And I rocked him for about 45 minutes. Now here you have a 23-year-old, 150-pound Marine that I’m just rocking and his therapist said it was his last gasp. It was his last place for refuge, and then the next time I held him
in my lap was when I was taking him down from the rafters. He had put the hose around his neck double-looped and he was dead.”
He said his son had not been able to get the treatment he needed from the Veterans Administration.
“What is disappointing is that the intervention doesn’t appear to be there at the present time,” he told CNN in a telephone interview from his home in western Massachusetts.
The government settled with the family for $350,000.
Jeffrey Lucey was 23 years old.
“These are the casualties of war that don’t show up in any pentagon statistics. Their wounds are invisible, but they are real. Soldiers who survive combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, but don’t always survive once they come home.”
The fact that our veterans are not receiving the help they need at home is a harsh reality. After putting their lives on the line for their country, making sacrifices in order to serve this nation, they are being abandoned in times of need. Left out alone in the cold when their duty is done. The current system is broken, the military healthcare system is overburdened, and proper aid is not provided to the men and women who come home to families who are unable to recognize the warning signs because they have not been notified or appraised of the changes they may see in their loved ones.
This year the annual military suicide prevention conference will be a joint effort between The Department of Defense and The Department of Veterans Affairs.
The 2009 DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference will be held at the Grand Hyatt in San Antonio, TX on January 12-15, 2009.
In response to previous conference surveys, this year we will offer not only additional breakout sessions, but sessions relevant to four different conference tracks in an effort to accommodate many disciplines. The four conference tracks are Clinical Intervention, Multi-Disciplinary, Practical Applications/Tools, and Research and Academics.
Hopefully the Obama administration will ensure that changes are made — that the men and women who serve us so faithfully are protected both on duty and off. There is no way to eliminate depression, anxiety, and PTSD among our troops. Those are invisible wounds which will never be fully eradicated from their ranks. But the rate of suicide can be lowered with prompt and effective intervention. There is no reason the military can’t provide more effective treatment to those who are suffering. There is no excuse for the lack of aid our veterans endure here at home.
And the sooner President Obama finds a way to safely bring our troops home, the more lives will be saved: both on and off the battlefield.