January 25, 2013

SUICIDES IN THE U.S. military rose in 2012 to a record high of 349, with more personnel dying by their own hand than on the battlefield. The numbers are a grim reminder of the challenge that suicide has long posed for the military — and they should lend urgency to the Pentagon’s efforts to combat this insidious problem.

The 349 suicides among active-duty troops exceeded not only the 2011 total of 301 but also the Pentagon’s internal projection for the year of 325. By comparison, The Post’s Ernesto Londoño wrote, 229 troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan last year. The number of suicides, which is subject to revision as the 2012 deaths are fully investigated, is the highest since 2001, when defense officials began keeping track. The military suicide rate is below that of the general civilian population, but the rising rate — even as the Pentagon has made suicide prevention a priority, with the establishment of numerous mental health initiatives — has unsettled military officials. “Epidemic” is the word used by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others.

Myriad factors are involved; some are unique to the military, including multiple deployments and readjustment from combat, while others, such as financial and marital issues, are apparent also in non-military suicides. More needs to be done to understand the causes, with particular attention on traumatic brain injury. The Associated Press reported that the Pentagon’s analysis of military suicides in 2011 — the most recent available year — showed the typical victim to be a white man under the age of 25, in the junior enlisted ranks, with less than a college education. The suicide rate among divorced service members was higher than among those who were married. More than half of those who died sought treatment before they died, with nearly a third getting services within 90 days of their deaths.

Stress, guns and alcohol” were pinpointed as a deadly combination last year by two retired Army generals, Peter W. Chiarelli and Dennis J. Reimer, in a Post op-ed that called attention to a provision that essentially barred commanders from talking to service members about their private weapons, even in cases where suicide was feared. Such discussions are important, given that 60 percent of the 2011 suicides were committed with firearms, and most of those were personal weapons. Thankfully, the bar to commanders talking to their troops was removed when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013. The new reauthorization also calls for development of a comprehensive suicide prevention policy for the military.

The war in Afghanistan is winding down, and military forces are likely to shrink. But the need to help prevent those who have served their country from taking their own lives will remain.