Suicides in the U.S. military hit a record 349 last year, far exceeding the 295 American combat deaths in Afghanistan. Experts believes the problem reflects strains on Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and societal problems, including difficulty finding jobs and relationship struggles.
In what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called an “epidemic,” the number of suicides in the military has increased since 2006, soaring to a then-record 310 in 2009. The number leveled off for two years before jumping to 349 this year, up from 301 last year.
The Army, by far the largest of the military services, had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops last year—182. But the Marine Corps, whose suicide numbers had declined for two years, had the largest percentage increase—a 50 percent jump to 48.
The Air Force recorded 59 suicides, up 16 percent from the previous year, and the Navy had 60, up 15 percent.
“Every suicide in our ranks is a tragic loss for the Army family, adversely affecting the readiness of our Army,” Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army’s chief personnel officer, said in a statement late last year. “I am asking soldiers, family members, Department of the Army civilians, neighbors, and friends to look out for each other and reach out and embrace those who may be struggling.”
Although the military suicide rate has continued to rise, it remains below that of the civilian population, Pentagon officials say. According to figures released today, the civilian suicide rate for males aged 17-60 was 25 per 100,000 in 2010, the latest year for which such statistics are available. That compares with the military's rate in 2012 of 17.5 per 100,000.
It came as a surprise to many that the number of suicides increased this year, as U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over and the Obama administration is taking steps to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
David Rudd, a military suicide researcher and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Utah, said he sees two main categories of troops who are committing suicide at an accelerating pace: Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress or substance abuse; and those who have not gone to war but face troubled personal relationships, money problems, or legal woes.
“The reason you’re going to see record numbers is because these wars are drawing down and these young men and women are returning home,” Rudd told USA Today in November. “When they return home, that’s where the conflicts surface.”
Often veterans have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life, especially when faced with a bad economy and disrupted relationships. An analysis of the suicides in 2011 found the suicide rate for divorced service members was 55 percent higher than for those who were married.
Officials are committed to pursuing ways of finding help for service members in trouble, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said on Monday.
"Our most valuable resource within the department is our people,” Smith said. “We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military.”