Yochi Dreazen is managing editor for news at Foreign Policy and the author of “The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War.”
Jeremy Sears, a Marine who had served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, walked onto a shooting range outside San Diego on Oct. 6, placed a handgun to his head and calmly pulled the trigger. It was a local news story but didn’t attract attention outside San Diego for the most tragic of reasons. Military suicides have become so common — since 2001, more active-duty U.S. troops have killed themselves than have been killed in Afghanistan, and suicides among reservists and National Guard members are spiking — that they are now background noise to many Americans, unpleasant reminders of wars most of us have forgotten about. But we won’t be able to solve the problem until we understand it. Let’s get rid of some myths.
1. Suicides have increased because we have overstretched our troops.
Repeated tours through the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan are often cited as a primary reason so many troops take their own lives. But the statistics don’t support that explanation. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in the summer of 2013 found that longer deployments, multiple deployments and combat experience didn’t elevate suicide risk. In fact, more than half the troops who had taken their lives had never deployed. A separate, massive Army study found that, while suicide rates for soldiers who had deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan more than doubled between 2004 and 2009, the rate for those who had never spent time in the war zones nearly tripled.
2. Suicides should decline with the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Since military suicides began increasing dramatically around the onset of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, there had been some hope that the numbers would come down once those wars were over. But the last American combat forces left Iraq at the end of 2011, and the drawdown in Afghanistan is well underway. (The White House has stressed that the 1,700 sent to Iraq to help coordinate the fight against the Islamic State won’t be anywhere near the front lines.)
And yet the suicide rate within the military is holding steady. The number of active-duty suicides in 2013 dropped by roughly 19 percent compared with 2012, but 2014 has seen them inch back up. This year, the military had lost 161 active-duty troops to suicide as of July, the most recent data available, compared with 154 during the same six-month time period in 2013. The numbers for the citizen-soldiers of the reserves and the National Guard have been even more dire, climbing 8 percent from 2012 to 2013, from 203 to 220. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told me in an interview, “I don’t think we’ve hit the top yet on suicides.”
That’s in part because post-traumatic stress disorder, which can fuel the alcohol abuse or depression that are most closely linked to military suicide, can manifest gradually, so veterans who seem okay could see their mental health deteriorate years after their service.
Veterans also face multiple stressors as they try to adjust to a civilian world that many barely recognize or understand. They may struggle financially, with relationships, and with drug or alcohol addiction. Meanwhile, the military medical system is so short-staffed that, too often, doctors give troops prescriptions for powerful medications and simply send them on their way. Under stress, without sufficient support — it can be a lethal combination.
3. Suicides have increased because the military lowered its recruitment standards and forced soldiers to remain on active duty.
At the height of the Iraq war, the military was so desperate to fill its ranks that it enlisted more troops with low levels of education or physical fitness, and tried to prevent troops from leaving through a deeply unpopular program called “stop-loss.” But the Army study found that neither policy pushed up the suicide rate. Instead, it found that roughly a third of soldiers who attempted suicide between 2004 and 2009 had mental health disorders before they joined the Army. That means the Pentagon may face the difficult task of scrutinizing a recruit’s psyche as closely as his or her body.
4. The weakest troops are most at risk.
Military culture has often derided soldiers suffering from PTSD or depression as cowards or worse. One unit at Colorado’s Fort Carson left mock forms titled “Hurt Feelings Report ” near a sheet where troops sign out to see doctors. The document began, “Reasons for filing this report” and offered choices including “I am thin skinned,” “I am a cry baby” and “I want my mommy.”
The anonymous author might be surprised to know that Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and other elite troops from the military’s secretive Special Operations community are also killing themselves at record rates. Adm. William McRaven, who oversees those forces, said in April that he was worried about the well-being of his men — troops specially selected for their mental and physical toughness. “My soldiers have been fighting now for 12, 13 years in hard combat. Hard combat. And anybody that has spent any time in this war has been changed by it. It’s that simple,” McRaven told a conference in Tampa.
That must include high-ranking officers. Yet while top commanders routinely talk about the importance of reducing the stigma that keeps soldiers from seeking help, few have been willing to share stories of their own struggles with combat stress, PTSD or depression. Only one, retired Army Major Gen. Dave Blackledge, was willing to speak to me on the record and acknowledge that he sometimes thought of taking his own life. Until more generals are willing to follow in his path, troubled troops will continue to suffer in silence and worry that asking for help will end their time in the military.
5. This is a problem unique to the military.
Our all-volunteer military reflects the society in which its soldiers were raised, and any problem that affects the country also affects those troops. Suicide is one of those problems. Indeed, troops who take their own lives have often been heavy drinkers or suffered from mental health issues such as bipolar disorder — the same factors linked to suicide in the civilian world.
Although the military suicide rate recently eclipsed the rate among civilians of similar age and background, the civilian rate has also soared. More Americans now take their own lives than die in car crashes. The increase has been particularly pronounced among baby boomers and other middle-aged Americans.
Preventing suicides, for the military and for civilians, means expanding access to care and making sure that people feel comfortable seeking it. If we want to support our troops, those trained to fight in our name deserve to know that we, as a nation, will fight for them.