In an era of terrorism that accompanies extended enlistments, multiple deployments, and yellow “Support the Troops” decals, suicides among American soldiers have been steadily increasing.
Earlier this year, Injury Prevention, a peer review journal on public health, reported that suicides had increased 80% and reached its highest rate in 10 years among soldiers. The suicide rate among soldiers is about one and a half times that of the general population.
According to statistics provided by the Department of the Army, soldier suicides exceeded combat deaths in Afghanistan in 2012. With one day left in the year, 212 American soldiers died in Afghanistan this year, but 303 active duty, reservists, and National Guard personnel took their own lives. All branches of the armed services have seen increases in soldier suicides, but the Army’s numbers are greatest.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta credits the increase of soldier suicides to:
“A nation that’s been at war for over a decade. . . . You have repeated deployments and sustained combat exposure to enormous stresses and strains on our troops and on their families that produced a lot of seen and unseen wounds that contribute to the suicide risk.”
As a result, the Army has begun making attempts to address the suicides, including an entire day of suicide prevention for all active duty troops. Another tactic the Army has taken is introduce an online software program to help commanding officers identify the signs that one of their soldiers may be contemplating suicide or other high-risk behavior. As reported by IVN, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act also includes provisions for the mental health of soldiers.
The mental health of America’s soldiers was highlighted in a 2006 Hartford Courant investigation which found only 6.5 percent of the soldiers who indicated mental health problems were actually referred to the proper assistance before deployment.
Through at least September, the Army reported approximately 33 suicides per month, but the tentative final number is barely over 300, an indication the military may be stanching the surge of soldier suicides. Regardless, with the total of deaths due to suicide still higher than combat deaths, it remains an alarming issue.
As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan winds down, soldier suicides may gain more attention as a public health issue, but with the ever-present chance there may be a further U.S. presence in countries from Iran to Pakistan to Syria, the issue may also not be resolved or much improved anytime soon.
As the nation engages in a public debate on mental health following the Sandy Hook catastrophe, and with a military that will have been at war for a dozen years in 2013, the gravity of these issues will certainly perpetuate and necessitate addressing.