Grim Record: Soldier Suicides Reach New High
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.
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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  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.
While the number of Army suicides each month makes for a jagged line, the trend is clearly upward.
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.”
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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.”
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