Does the Military Have a Suicide Problem?

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Death is one of the tragic realities of war, but what about suicide? The US military released the suicide numbers for service members in 2010 last week, and the statistics were eye-opening: for the second year in a row, more troops were lost to suicide than to combat in Iraq or Afghanistan--at least by Congressional Quarterly's John Donnelly's count. "The suicide rate is a further indication of the stress that military personnel live under after nearly a decade of war," writes Donnelly. He also describes the difficulty and complications around tracking such a statistic. "Should returning soldiers who take their own lives after being mustered out [discharged] be included?" he wonders.

Donnelly also points out the number of suicides that fall through the cracks in the military's accounting. The services reported 434 suicides Donnelly says, but many reservists with the Air Force and Marines as well as a unit called the Individual Ready Reserve, a group of more than 123,000 people who are not assigned to particular units, were left out when the military reported their statistics. So too were veterans who have recently left service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There were 462 US military deaths in combat last year, and as Donnelly reports: "Even if such veterans and members of the Individual Ready Reserve are excluded from the suicide statistics, just taking into account the deaths of reservists who were not included in last week's figures pushes the number of suicides last year to at least 468. That total includes some Air Force and Marine Corps reservists who took their own lives while not on active duty, and it exceeds the 462 military personnel killed in battle."

Sucides amongst military reservists have become a concern; a Pentagon study earlier this year showed that "reservists lack the support structure that active-duty troops have," says Donnelly. For its part, the US Army supplies us with this information about its forces: "Suicide is the fourth-leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year old people in the United States. Historically, the suicide rate has been lower in the military than among civilians. In 2008 that pattern was reversed, with the suicide rate in the Army exceeding the age-adjusted rate in the civilian population (20.2 out of 100,000 vs. 19.2)."

Better statistics are needed, Donnelly argues, quoting New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt: lawmakers believe that there is a "problem," but need "to more accurately gauge the extent to which programs to help troubled troops are having an effect."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.