The skyrocketing number of military suicides is perplexing. Why did more American soldiers take their own lives last year (349) than were killed in combat (310)?
The first conclusion is that the suicides don’t appear to be related to combat stress. Most of the suicide victims had never been deployed. Only about 47 percent had served in Iraq/Afghanistan, 15 percent had direct combat experience, and only 8 percent had a history of multiple deployments.
It’s true that just the possibility of being deployed overseas adds additional stress, but that should be less of a problem last year with the prospects of massive deployments apparently behind us.
Instead, it appears that personal issues were a greater problem.
The 2011 DoD Suicide Event Report found that death rates for divorced service members were 55 percent higher than for married service members. It said that 47 percent of the decedents had a history of a failed marriage or intimate relationship, with more than half of them experiencing breakups within a month before their deaths.
Legal problems were also common. More than 18 percent were facing Article 15 judicial proceedings, and another 13 percent faced civil legal problems. More than 21 percent had lost their jobs or been demoted.
A couple of years ago, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s vice of staff at the time, blamed the mounting suicides on loosened retention standards that had allowed 47,000 personnel to remain in the Army despite histories of substance abuse, misdemeanor crimes, or misconduct. He noted that loosened recruitment standards also were allowing people “coming in the Army to start all over again, and we see this high rate of suicide.”
Since 2009, the Pentagon has been pursuing an anti-suicide initiative that stresses the importance of counseling and attempts to reduce the stigma of a soldier reaching out for help. Among other things, it has increased behavioral health care providers by 35 percent over past three years, increased the number in a primary care setting, and embedded more counselors in front-line units. But clearly, that’s not enough.
One new tool is contained in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, which President Obama recently signed. It authorizes military commanders to ask at-risk soldiers about the firearms that they privately own and to recommend that they get those weapons out of the house until their mood stabilizes.
The act also requires the Secretary of Defense to develop a comprehensive suicide prevention program for the entire military rather than a hodgepodge of individual service programs.
Those are undoubtedly valuable initiatives, but I think back to the recommendations that came out of the Montana National Guard following the suicide of one of its members six years ago, and I think some of them could be adopted nationally. They certainly served Montana well.
One of the key steps taken there was setting up a crisis response team – typically a senior commissioned office, a senior NCO, a personnel officer and a chaplain – which was poised to check out any concerns about an individual’s mental or emotional health. If needed, the team could immediately refer a troubled soldier to counseling.
A second key step was creating a system of embedded counselors, who were present during the weekend drills. Soldiers could make appointments to see them, but the counselors also mingled with the soldiers, observing those who appeared to be struggling and talking with troops about how fellow soldiers were faring.
Many also worry that soldiers aren’t getting the help that they need because they’re afraid they’ll be flagged for visiting military counselors. Despite the official policy, there remains a stigma among soldiers who believe their mission is to provide help, not seek it. Some suggest the Pentagon ought to reimburse soldiers for seeing private, civilian counselors. Certainly, it’s worth a try.
Finally, there’s a special Military Crisis number: 1-800-273-8255. Please pass it along to anyone you think might need it.