Sadly, that suicide rates are high in the U.S. military is not a new development.
What is new is how often military personnel — particularly those in the Army — are taking their own lives. Pentagon statistics published this week by the Associated Press show that there have been 154 suicides in the first 155 days of 2012. That’s 50 percent more suicide deaths than combats deaths over that same time period and an 18 percent increase in suicides from the year before.
All in all, it’s a complex problem wrapped within a simple question: Why? It’s clear that the military’s suicide-prevention programs aren’t working well enough.
We’ll leave the deep psychoanalysis of this issue to the military and those trained in the field of suicide prevention. That said, our initial concern is the military’s response to this stark data — specifically, that the thousands of U.S. troops who have served multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are at the heart of this spike in military suicides.
The politics of those wars is impossible to ignore. The Iraq War was a pre-emptive mistake that’s killed more than 4,000 Americans, untold numbers of Iraqi soldiers and civilians and cost billions of dollars.
The Afghanistan War was justly born from the ashes of 9/11 and the hunt to avenge al-Qaida’s brazen attacks on U.S. oil. But it long ago became a war that wouldn’t end, a war whose mission resembled a moving target. With Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida chief, dead, and his terror organization weakened (though not destroyed), the withdrawal of U.S. troops can’t happen soon enough.
All sorts of armchair psychologists can point to a diverse set of suicide causes such as depression, addiction to painkillers for battlefield injuries and difficulties readjusting to life away from the front lines. Those reasons have merit.
Yet, as Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general and practicing psychiatrist, told the AP, the suicide rate “is a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war. We’ve seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison.”
Earlier this month, data from the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that veterans are filing disability claims in record numbers in 2012. Now add to that the military’s astounding suicide rate. Eventually, both Congress and the Pentagon need to make the mental and physical health of America’s fighting men and women the priority it should be.