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The Other War: Military Suicides and Accidental Deaths

A perspective on risk-taking, thrill-seeking and non-combat deaths

A few years ago a four-star general in the U.S Army asked me to spend a day in a retreat meeting at a Southern military base with the brass.They were aware of our work on thrill-seeking and risk-taking (the "Type T Personality") and wanted to discuss its possible implications for soldier behavior in combat as well as outside of combat, especially non-combat deaths including accidents and suicide. My view of the military is that there is positive risk-taking/thrill-seeking (T+) that is unfortunately necessary for certain aspects of combat success in modern conflicts, and negative risk-taking/thrill-seeking (T-) that can lead to non-combat deaths (e.g., drug/alcohol related,motorcycle accidents, weapons accidents, and possibly suicide).

The T- aspect is significant. The New York Times reported (2010) that non-combat deaths (accidents plus suicides) outnumber deaths due to combat! The possible connection of Type T behavior to most military suicides seems rather unlikely to me, in that I have usually found these individuals to have a strong love of life, of living it to the fullest. Not a death wish but a life wish. Accidental deaths, on the other hand,are a highly likely outcome of some risk-taking tendencies, and the military is attempting various strategies to reduce these. And it is sometimes difficult to determine if a particular non-combat death is accidental or a suicide. One might speculate that even a few combat deaths could be suicide, roughly analogous to the concept of "death by cop."

In an all-voluntary military, we can expect some extremes of risk-taking/thrill-seeking to be a characteristic among some of those volunteering in the hope of adventure (note some military recruitment advertisements) and possibly combat. And as noted above, some likely T+ qualities could be attractive to the military, such as fearlessness, self-confidence, lack of aversion to risk, inventiveness, quick thinking (consider the central figure in the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker).

We might normally expect high suicide rates in the military, given the often high levels of stress, anxiety, transitions,uncertainty and threat, economic and career issues (e.g., opportunity costs due to military commitment, future job prospects), personal loss (e.g.,the "Dear John/Dear Jane" letter, death of a fellow soldier), isolation and separation from loved ones, family and friends. These soldiers are usually young people with little experience of such lengthy and often distant separations, as well as the other challenges noted above, who are in an age range now frequently labelled as a mere extension of adolescence, the so-called "emerging adulthood", that is, not fully adult. By comparison, civilian "emerging adults", those who do not volunteer for the military during wartime, rarely confront such challenges.But here is an interesting fact: historically, the suicide rate in the military has been LOWER than that for comparably aged civilians (U.S.Department of Defense, 2010)! Given my hypothesized over-representation of "T Types" in the volunteer military that we have today, this might be argued to suggest lower risk of suicide in such individuals—at least the T+ ones. But recently, for both the Army and Marines, that suicide comparison with civilians has reversed itself. The 2009 figures: Marines, 24 suicides per 100,000; Army, 22; civilians, 20.

This relative increase in military suicides is a puzzle, evoking several theories. One is that with the massive demands of engagement in Afganistan and until recently Iraq, our over-extended military may be retaining more substandard trainees than in the past, that is, retaining some despite psychological or behavioral problems. Might such recruits be more suicide-prone?

Intensive research and prevention efforts are underway in the military to reduce the rates of suicide, including raising awareness of warning signs, special training for leaders, peer help ("battle buddies"), professional help (the Army has increased the number of available professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists), joining together with civilian efforts to reduce all U.S. suicides via the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, launched jointly in 2010 by the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services (U.S.Department of Defense, 2011), among other efforts.

References

Army studies thrill-seeking behavior.(2010, October 30). New York Times.

U.S. Department of Defense.(2011, January 3). Suicide prevention alliance focuses on troops, veterans (news release).

U.S.Department of Defense. (2010). U.S.Army health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention report. Washington, D.C.

Frank Farley, Ph.D., is L.H.Carnell Professor, Temple University, Philadelphia and former President of the American Psychological Association. He can be reached at frank.farley@comcast.net

Frank Farley, Ph.D., is a L.H. Carnell Professor, Temple University, and former President of the American Psychological Association.

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