Why Are Military Suicides So High?

The Army wants to do something about it

This article is from the archive of our partner .

With U.S. military suicides at an all-time high, the Army launched an investigation into the rise of suicides in the force, which at a rate of 20 per 100,000 people is 5 percent higher than the U.S. civilian rate of 19 per 100,000 people. Here is the Army's report and the thoughts of journalists, experts, and one military spouse on this troubling issue.

  • What Inspired the Report  The Army details in a press release, "The report grew out of a series of visits to six Army installations directed by Casey and led by Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli in Spring 2009 to look at suicide prevention efforts in the force. 'What we witnessed were real indicators of stress on the force, and an increasing propensity for Soldiers to engage in high risk behavior,' Chiarelli said. 'We recognized almost immediately we had to widen the aperture – risk in the force cannot be mitigated by suicide prevention alone.'"
  • Suicides Greater Risk Than Combat  The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller reports, "The report said that if the Army added in accidental deaths, which it said are often the result of high-risk behavior involving drinking and drugs, 'less young men and women die in combat than die by their own actions.' It concluded: 'We are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy.'"
  • Commanders Must Pay Better Attention  Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks summarizes, "Army commanders need to pay better attention to soldiers to prevent suicide. ... First-termers are especially at risk." Ricks adds, "I admire the way Gen. Chiarelli has stuck with this issue. It can't be easy."
  • In War-Time, Recruitment Changes  Veteran and blogger James Joyner describes "the new strain of risk-seeking recruits who join during wartime and commanders who neglect to rein them in." He explains, "During long periods of peace, men join the Army for secure employment, college benefits, travel, patriotism, and the like. But we’ve been at war for as long as new recruits can remember. That means people joining either want to fight or are so desperate for work that they’re willing to risk death. These are very different types of people."
  • Necessity-Driven Drop in Standards  The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller reports, "The report said that the pace of constant deployments in two wars had forced a lowering of recruiting and retention standards. Many new recruits were granted waivers, it said, for behavior that would have kept them out of the service in earlier years. Of 80,403 waivers granted since 2004, the report found that 47,478 were granted to people with a history of drug or alcohol abuse, misdemeanor crime or 'serious misconduct,' which it defined as felony. At the same time, the report found that there was a decrease in soldiers forced to leave the Army for misconduct. 'This has likely resulted in the retention of over 25,283 soldiers who would have otherwise been separated in previous years,' the report said."
  • Army Must Change Broader Culture  The Atlantic's Kayt Sukel, a military wife who lost an Army family member to suicide, writes, "Few if any are questioning Chiarelli's or Philbrick's seriousness in leading this campaign. The open question is whether they, and it, will have the leverage to start changing the Army's broader mindset."
  • How Physical Care Can Improve Mental Health  Drew Conway explains on Twitter, "I had a very sobering conversation with one of the research MD's at Walter Reed about suicide last time I was in DC. He said often it has to do with multiple trips back into the hospital after initial surgery/care. Which creates added separation from family friends, leads to depression, etc. Very tragic. Part of the [conversation] was about using big data on infection to create better care at the initial surgery, prevent multiple [visits]."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.