Suicide among active-duty military personnel has been a much-discussed topic in the past couple of years. The Department of Defense has a system in place that records suicide data from all branches, and the information is available month by month. They don’t wait until the end of the year to tally up and release the total.
Still, the numbers are uncertain, because authorities are not always sure what happened. Here is a sample from a government press release:
For 2012, there have been 182 potential active-duty suicides: 130 have been confirmed as suicides and 52 remain under investigation… For 2012, there have been 143 potential not on active-duty suicides (96 Army National Guard and 47 Army Reserve): 117 have been confirmed as suicides and 26 remain under investigation.
This is just the Army. Though statistics from the other branches are compiled they are hard to find. And even concerning the Army, it is perhaps not widely realized that the category of “not on active duty” (in the reserves) is counted separately from active duty.
Speaking of the National Guard, some journalists conscientiously keep track. For ABC15 News, Lori Jane Gliha reported on one particular group of nearly 200 Arizona soldiers who had been sent to Iraq together. In 2006, only some of them came back. Gliha wrote:
It was a long, tough deployment. Thirty-six members received Purple Hearts and two were killed in Iraq… Since their return, the unit has lost twice as many soldiers to suicide.
Likewise, “not on active duty” is of course different from discharged. When it comes to veterans, no matter who collects the data, or how, it is bound to be approximate. For one thing, death certificates don’t always note whether the person was a veteran, nor do they always specify that the death was by suicide. The federal government gets its statistics from death certificates, so it only know as much as those documents tell. The latest report from the VA’s Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program (59 pages) can be found in downloadable PDF format.
Compiled by Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, this report got its information from the State Mortality Project, Suicide Behavior Reports, and the Veterans Crisis Line. Until the system is really up and running, the information only comes in from 21 states. Even more discouraging, the states that have so far caught up with the reporting requirements do not include California and Texas, both of which contain vast numbers of military veterans. So the figures are derived from less than half of the states, and extrapolated to the nation as a whole. In other words, the veteran suicide total is a wild guess.
Writer Pat Shannan looks at the problem from another angle:
Using figures from the National Violent Death Reporting System, Portland State University noted that male veterans kill themselves twice as often as their civilian counterparts and that female veterans are three times more likely to commit suicide than civilian women… Figures gleaned from the two wars showed while 6,460 died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 11 years, those United States soldiers who died by their own hand is estimated to be greater than that.
In a little over a decade, more active-duty soldiers took their own lives than were killed in combat. (Has this happened ever in history?) The veteran suicide rate is estimated to be about 8,000 per year, which breaks down to 22 per day, which translates to almost one every hour! Among them, Vietnam veterans are still very present. They sometimes refuse to seek help. At-risk vets who have started the process of seeking help for suicide prevention, sometimes don’t follow up. In Psychology Today, Eric Newhouse wrote about the total number of suicides in America for the time period:
Of the 60 year olds, only 8.1 percent were civilians, but 16.5 percent were vets and 19.6 percent participated in the VA system. Of the 70 year olds, only 4.6 percent were civilians, but 18.6 percent were vets and 20 percent participated in the VA system.
In other words, even though one out of five of those older vets were hooked up with the system, it apparently was not able to prevent their self-destruction. This is bitter news.
The Military Suicide Research Consortium (MSRC) is an entity created by the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Florida State University, and funded by a $17-million Department of Defense grant. The MSRC’s mandate is to integrate the powers of both governmental and civilian agencies, to turn this trend of military suicide around. It is headed by a colonel and assisted by a military advisory board, so, as the saying goes, “consider the source.” Is it a cosmetic effort to make a bad situation look better?
Apparently not. The MSRC does not seem to be trying to hide a thing. Via its website, a large number of “white papers” are available for consultation, including studies of the efficacy of herbs and nutritional supplements for suicide prevention, and other surprising topics. Also, the site contains such headlines as:
Survivor Suicides: Alarming trend of family members committing suicide after service members die in battle.
Yes, the collateral damage includes the relatives and spouses of the direct-combat casualties. There is yet another layer of complication to cope with, as military courts struggle with the question of whether a suicide attempt by an active-duty service member is a prosecutable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Furthermore, those who are considering suicide may be reluctant to seek the help they need because if they live, the unfavorable notations on their permanent records will hinder however much of their military career remains. Another unwelcome surprise is the knowledge that personnel who were assigned to more covert activities when on active duty in, for instance, Iraq and Afghanistan, have an even harder time getting help than the average service member.
When it comes to the next subcategory we will consider, homeless veteran suicides, the numbers are even more fuzzy. As far as anybody knows right now, about 62,000 veterans are experiencing homelessness. Although both the Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development collect data, accuracy is frustratingly elusive. When the suicide of any homeless person is reported to the national database, information about the individual’s military service is provided (or not) to the staff of the funeral home by the family, if there is any family. For many homeless suicides, such information is simply unavailable.
Source: “Army Releases December 2012 and Calendar Year 2012 Suicide Information,” Defense.gov, 02/01/13
Source: “Arizona National Guard soldiers slipping through cracks as veteran suicide rates rise,” ABC15.com, 04/16/13
Source: “Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Services Suicide Prevention Program,” VA.gov, 2012
Source: “Military Suicides Hit Epidemic Levels,” American Free Press, 03/27/13
Source: “Soaring Vets’ Suicide Rates,” Psychology Today, 03/06/13
Source: “About the Military Suicide Research Consortium,” MSRC
Image by Greg Watt.