Suicide has become the most likely cause of death in the United States military after actual combat.
Last week we learned that suicides in the United States military are occurring at a rate of one per day. Now, according to USA Today, that places suicide ahead of traffic accidents as the most common cause of death in the military outside of actual combat. One in four non-combat deaths are now attributed to suicide.
As of 3 June, confirmed and suspected suicides in 2012 have reached a total of 154, as compared to 127 deaths in the Afghanistan War. Last year, 26% of U.S. deaths were in combat. Suicide was responsible for 20%, and traffic accidents, 17%. According to Newser, the rise in suicides began in 2006 and has continued since, after leveling off briefly in 2011.
Why? The most obvious conclusion connects the longevity of the United States’ recent and ongoing wars to the prevalence of suicides. According to Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, a retired Army Brigadier General turned psychiatrist in civilian life, the increase of suicide is “…a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war.” Other causes suggested include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, combat exposure, financial struggles, and misuse of prescription drugs.
But are these factors truly to blame? By way of comparison, one might look back to another long and unpopular war in U.S. history and see if there are parallels. It is somewhat difficult to nail down dates for the Vietnam War (U.S. involvement in the nation began almost immediately after World War II and continued until 1975), but if we take President Johnson’s 1963 escalation as a rough starting point and end with the 1975 fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War lasted twelve years, about on par with the war in Afghanistan, which is now in its eleventh year. According to archives.gov, only 382 of the 58,193 deaths in the Vietnam War were suicides. That makes suicide the sixteenth most common cause of death in Vietnam, just behind illness and disease (to which 482 deaths are attributed). A little bit of math reveals that suicide accounts for .6% of deaths in Vietnam.
Further confounding the cause of this surge in suicide, a “substantial proportion” of Army suicides are committed by servicemen and women who have never deployed in combat.
The attitude of the military towards suicide may prove illuminating. Soldiers suffering from mental illness are afraid to seek help, over concerns that such attempts will be seen as weak and bar advancement. Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Major John Ruocco who hung himself in 2005 between deployments in Iraq, said her husband “…was so afraid of how people would view him once he went for help,” and “he thought that people would think he was weak, that people would think he was just trying to get out of redeploying or trying to get out of service, or that he just couldn’t hack it – when, in reality, he was sick. He had suffered injury in combat and he had also suffered from depression and let it go untreated for years. And because of that, he’s dead today.”
By contrast, Major General Dana Pittard wrote in January that soldiers should “be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”
This is not to suggest that our servicemen are victims or their commanders cruel, nor is Major General Pittard’s comment indicative of the entire military command structure’s feelings towards suicide – chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, said he disagreed with Pittard in “the strongest possible terms” – but both episodes seem to suggest an overarching misunderstanding of suicide.
The good news is, that’s a misunderstanding that the military is now working to correct. The Army has set aside $75 million to research the causes of suicide, attempt to understand it, and work to prevent it. The research is being led by Army Colonel Carl Castro, who commented on the recent surge in suicides by saying that “we were slow to react because we weren’t sure if it was an anomaly or it was a real trend…then it just takes time to program the money and get the studies up and going.”
Hopefully the military’s new research program works, because regarding the military’s suicide prevention attempts up to this point, Colonel Castro confessed that “everything we do in suicide prevention, there’s no evidence it works.”