As of this writing, according to an Associated Press investigation, there have been 154 suicides for active-duty troops in 2012 – nearly one per day of the year so far.
Besides a surging suicide rate, the military is also experiencing higher incidences of sexual assault, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and other forms of misbehavior.
Analysts say these figures are reflective of an over-burdened military that is reeling from multiple deployments over the past 10 years, mostly to Iraq and Afghanistan. It should be noted that these wartime deployments come in addition to peacetime obligations such as year-long, recurring commitments to places like Qatar, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, Kosovo and parts of Africa – assignments that are often handled by National Guard units from around the country because they are in excess of the staffing and manning capabilities of active duty components.
Needless to say, the American military is busy — some say too busy. Still, military suicide rates had been leveling off; they fell in 2010 and 2011. So the increase now was not only unexpected but difficult to explain.
Or is it?
Multiple wars, multiple deployments = higher rates of suicide
Some believe the spike is simply the result of the military’s sustained, hectic optempo (operations tempo). At the peak of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, many active duty forces – especially the Army and Marine Corps – were pulling new deployments every year or so. By 2009, some long-term servicemembers on active duty had been deployed as many as four times.
The optempo hasn’t been much better for Guard and Reserve units, of which many members have been deployed nearly as often as their active duty counterparts (though that is not the norm; National Guard units typically spend at least 4-5 years back home in their respective states between deployments).
Such a high deployment rate, then, leads to other conclusions: too much combat exposure and an increase in post-traumatic stress, which has then led to “misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems,” the AP reported.
“Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed,” said the report.
Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, clearly Pentagon leaders have a problem on their hands. According to Defense Department’s own figures, the 154 suicides this year compare to 130 over the same period last year, an increase of 18 percent. Additionally, that is more than the average of about 136 suicides the Pentagon had earlier projected for the current period based on trends from 2001-2011.
“This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far,” AP reported.
Part of the problem is cultural. Military members – especially those in combat arms units – often ignore warning signs and eschew profession help because they believe it’s a sign of weakness and an impediment to rank advancement.
And yet, ignoring the signs and turning down help has very real consequences. Few know that better than Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Maj. John Ruocco, a helicopter pilot who hanged himself in 2005 between Iraq deployments. He said he couldn’t bring himself to go for help.
Stigma of weakness is killing our troops
“He was so afraid of how people would view him once he went for help,” she told the AP at her home in suburban Boston. “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.”
As a result of her husband’s horribly untimely death, Ruocco joined TAPS – Tragedy Assistance Programs – a military support organization. She is currently its director of suicide prevention programs; she organized the group’s first program focusing on providing support for families of suicide victims.
The military is aware it has a problem and, for its part, is responding. The Marines have implemented a number of programs and the service has probably been the most successful in lowering suicide rates. But more needs to be done, especially to eliminate the stigma associated with asking for help.
“What is known is that all Army populations … are under increased stress after a decade of war,” said an Army report earlier this year, adding that if not for prevention efforts the Army’s suicide totals could be perhaps four times higher than they are already.
And here’s another perspective. Some think war is the country’s new economic policy. (http://www.marketwatch.com) Sad if true.