The Military Suicide Epidemic

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One a day — that’s the current rate of suicide for members of our military. It’s also the headline on the cover of last week’s Time magazine. In their article, reporters Mark Thompson and Nancy Gibbs tell the stories of two Army captains — one a helicopter pilot handsome enough to be nicknamed Captain Brad Pitt; the other an Army doctor and father of three — who both ended their own lives on the same day.

We caught up with Thompson to learn more about the alarming rise of suicide in the military.

Lauren Feeney: How pervasive is the problem of suicide in the U.S. military?

Mark Thompson: The problem has grown markedly worse in the last decade. For generations, the military was proud that its rate was lower than the civilian rate. But starting in about 2004-2005, especially in the Army, that began to change. Over the past decade now the suicide rate in the Army has doubled from where it was ten years ago. More U.S. military personnel have died by suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died fighting there.

Feeney: Why the Army as opposed to other branches of the military?

Thompson: The army is the biggest branch, but it’s also carrying the biggest burden in our two recent wars. One out of three people who kills himself in the army has never deployed — but two-thirds have, and that is enough to generate the spike in suicides we have seen. We’ve had basically a turn-style military, where the same folks keep going back and forth. The more you deploy, the more likely you are to be depressed or to come down with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Those are the witches brew of mental problems caused by repeated deployments, and all contribute to an increased risk of suicide.

Feeney: Why are the rates of suicide so much higher today than in past wars?

Thompson: In WWII and Vietnam there was a draft. You went, you did your duty and then you were done. You came home. Most people who went to Vietnam were there for about 13 months. It may have been a drag — but it was a 13-month drag. Today, we have a fixed-size military. It’s too small for the wars we are fighting, and because it’s so small, those who are fighting keep going back — again, and again, and again. There are some people who have been over 10, 12, 14 times, especially rangers and other special forces.

It’s a volunteer military, so if you’ve been a few times and you just can’t do it any more, by and large, you can get out. What we’re seeing is that those that have gone one, two, three times actually have more mental problems than those that have gone seven or eight times, because if you go a lot, it plainly means you like the adrenaline rush, you like the danger. There are adrenaline junkies who will go every chance they get and thrive mentally. Nobody understands why. The trouble spot seems to be the people who go one, two or three times and then get out. But the seeds of PTSD and TBI may already be planted and the damage already been done.

Feeney: What happens when these people come home needing help?

Thompson: In the military, there’s a stigma associated with getting help, so a lot of people who need help don’t seek it. But even if you overcome the stigma, as we saw in the case of Captain Morrison, the West Point graduate in our article — he sought help six times in the three days before he took his own life. Each time, he was either turned away, told to come back next month, next week, in two hours… and eventually it was too much. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back — he killed himself. So, it’s sort of a double whammy — you’ve got to get over the stigma, and then you’ve got to get help when you ask for it, and that’s frankly where the military has fallen down.

Feeney: I was intrigued by a little sidebar item in a CNAS report on military suicide which explained that they don’t use the phrase “commit suicide” because it portrays it as a crime or a sin, which adds to the stigma. Should we be more careful with the language we use to talk about suicide?

Thompson: When I talk to soldiers, they don’t hesitate to use the term “commit suicide” but I understand where they’re coming from in the CNAS report. If you don’t want to set anyone off, you have to pick your language carefully. That was what was so stunning about Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, the commander down in Ft. Bliss, TX who said in January, “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act. I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.” Dana Petard did retract that statement after it became public, but that attitude is not uncommon in the US military.

Feeney: Your article was painful to read, and must have been even harder to write. Why did you do it?

Thompson: For several years now, every month, the army has issued a body count of the number of soldiers in its ranks who committed suicide in the prior month. For those of us who cover the military, it’s pretty dispiriting to see these numbers month after month and not really have any idea about who these people were. So our challenge was to find a couple of folks and tell their story — which we did through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a non-profit group in Washington who put us in touch with these two widows.

Feeney: What policy changes need to be instituted to turn this trend around?

Thompson: It’s an interesting question, everybody asks it, and there is no good answer. The implication that there is a right solution is silly, because suicide is an intrinsically individual act and different ingredients go into it for everybody, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. All you can do — and what the military is trying to do — is take a blunderbuss approach. Put some money here, do this, do that. What works for Soldier A might not work for Soldier B, but if you try everything you’re bound to prevent more suicides. They’re spending roughly 4 percent of the $53 billion annual military medical budget on mental health.

Some people will say that suicide, like the tides, is a transitory thing; we don’t know why it goes up, we don’t know why it goes down, but they’re convinced that it will go down. The concern for the Army is that as it shrinks, that’s going to put the remaining soldiers under more pressure. And as soldiers come home from a decade of war to families who have in some ways gotten used to living without them, there will be relationship problems, another big stressor that can lead to suicide. So even though the wars are winding down, it’s important to realize that the suicides will follow in their wake — it’s not going to turn off like a light switch as soon as the war is over.

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  • PFC

    Did you say the wars are winding down? I don’t see how that is possible as long as the war-for-profit motive is as strong in our corporations and as well-established in the Congress as it appears to be. Eisenhower had it right; too bad no one is listening.

  • Anonymous

    What can we do to fix the idiotic phone system that the Veterans Administration has? “Your call is important to us” the computer says, over, and over, and over, and…. then you might get forwarded to “your call is very important to us”. How many times would you need to be told by a computer that “your call is important to us” before you would become suicidal? Fine, you are caller eleven.

    We are in a recession. Cannot we find human beings to answer phones and do something sane when the lines are not ringing off the hook? Answering clinic scheduling all day long in front of a computer is a tad crazymaking, is it not, that is why call centers are off shored, I believe.

    I am fine. But if more vets are dying by their own hand than in action… perhaps this great country which asked these men and women to do unconscionable things, could at least answer there calls by a human being. I am fine, but that does not mean my clerical ability is 100%. Seems like the hot shot phone systems designers expect perfect clerical ability just to get a doctors appointment within half an hour on the phone.

    Vets who have PTSD get to come home to families losing their houses. Anyone losing their house is also in PTSD. PTSD squared. Time is not necessarily sequential with these poor folks. A phone tree is a maze. The VA phone system is a disgrace. But that is OK. You can just have the computer say: “Your call is important to us” and all that will go away.

    Thank you Bill Moyers for providing this opportunity to post.

  • wiserage

    I read the Time Magazine article. It was very upsetting. The descended soldiers in the article and other suicide victims had been under so much compressed pressure of duties and responsibilities (they had been over worked and were burnt out). They had a hard time during their down time or return to civilian life. All soldiers should have some kind decompression transition. A thorough evaluation and SPA (Supportive Peace Adjustment) treatment to help with normalization back to the real world. This could involve counseling, reintegration to home life and nonmilitary support services. One program I have read about is the matching of veterans to dogs for their pets. It has been very successful, what could be more unconditional than a dog in helping someone to recover from the traumas and sadness of war.

  • wiserage

    I read the Time magazine article. It was very upsetting. The descended soldiers in the article and other suicide victims had been under so much compressed pressure of duties and responsibilities (they had been over worked and were burnt out). They then had a hard time during their down time or return to civilian life. All soldiers should have some kind decompression transition. A thorough evaluation and SPA (Supportive Peace Adjustment) treatment to help with normalization back to the real world. This could involve counseling, reintegration to home life and nonmilitary support services. One program I have read about is the matching of veterans to dogs for pets. It has been very successful, what could be more unconditional than a dog in helping someone to recover from the traumas and sadness of war.

  • J G Broadfield

    This is all interesting, but I believe it is telling that NO ONE talks about basic training – a place of intentional dehumanization. It would seem to me to be the beginning of a road down which suicide might be inevitable.

  • Bill Sweeney

    My understanding is that veterans who are seeking mental health care have to go thru the VA medical system to have their treatment paid for unless they want to pay out of pocket or thru some private insurance. As a result, it is difficult to get an appointment. But why not change the system so it works more like Medicare. So if you are a veteran, you can go to any qualified mental health provider. The provider would then bill the VA just like they would bill Medicare. This way veterans who live in places that are far from the nearest VA facility could get treatment from someone close to where they live. This would cut down on delays, on bureaucracy, and simply make it much easier to access treatment.

  • JonThomas

    Smaller Government, and tax breaks for those who can afford taxes the most, equals less workers.

  • JonThomas

    A friend of mine, a veteran, did finally commit suicide. He suffered
    from clinical depression for many years. His description of the VA and
    it’s staff, led me to understand that many of the doctors were often young and
    somewhat less experienced than the average doctor in private practice. I
    assume it has a lot to do with wages and pay scale.

    The turnover rate was very distressing to him. Especially for
    psychiatric patients is it difficult. As soon as he developed a rapport
    with a doctor…where they would learn a bit about him and his life, his drug
    regiment and it’s ever-changing history, then they would soon move on
    and a new doctor would step in. The process would repeat over and over.

    The issue with the drug regiment was particularly distressing. The drugs
    would help for a time, then the levels of each drug would have to be
    adjusted for them to remain effective. This is normal for clinically
    depressed patients. However, each time a new doctor stepped in, they
    would want him to… ‘just try this for a while.’ Then he would have to
    start from scratch. It was like being a yo-yo.

    He was already a guinea pig for new drugs(which really he didn’t mind,
    he really did have a very acute case of depression, and he saw the
    medicines as a lifeline. Anything new to him, that offered relief, he
    welcomed.) The yo-yo factor however, simply added to his stress and made
    coping with his problems more difficult.

    There were times when he tried to check in for a stay(when he knew things were getting bad) and would have to wait.

    He eventually opted for shock therapy (I forget the new, sanitized name
    for it.) That did give him months of relief at a time after the treatment. Yet that too was subject to
    each new doctor’s decision. The steps it would take for him to be
    able to receive the treatment would have to be repeated (in some ways
    it’s understandable. There are side-effects on the body, especially the
    heart, and each new doctor, through concern for the patient,and ethical
    considerations, had to make him wait before they consented to allow him
    to undergo the treatment.) In short, the high turn-over rate added up to
    a lot of frustration.

    He took his own life about 5 years ago. It was unbelievably sad. There was a lot of very trying days. A lot of banging on doors. An uncountable number of trips for the hour drive to the VA hospital which those of us close to him took turns driving.

    This isn’t to say it was the VA’s fault. He had the worst case of depression of anyone I had ever known or met. However, I can’t help thinking that in the context of this discussion, that maybe if the VA offered a more stable service, it would have eased his life a little. Would it have changed the outcome? Who knows. But it would have helped, and that may have made a difference.

  • Anonymous

    If I were a young American soldier returning from my 6th or 8th
    tour in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, where I fought “in defense of freedom and other
    American values,” I might kill myself too.
    There is noticeably less “freedom” now than when I first deployed. Bankers, torturers, and presidents are now officially
    above that other American value: the rule of law. I can’t find a job – and Congress, whose one
    and only goal is to defeat the president’s every effort to help out the middle
    class, won’t even talk about job creation projects. In fact, they criticize the president for
    even uttering the phrase “middle class” because the rich are demanding that the politicians they own get us
    forget that we live in an outrageously stratified society.

    My parents are now living in their car
    because the bank, without so much as producing the deed to the property,
    foreclosed on them. My wife, who lost
    her job in the fallout of the 2008 crash, has just spent her last unemployment
    benefit check, and food stamps are the next to go.
    She and the baby are now living with her parents. I am having trouble distinguishing which is
    worse: this waking reality or my recurring nightmare about being blown to bits
    by an IED.

    Maybe the question all these puzzled military shrinks and
    others should be asking is: Why wouldn’t I kill myself?

  • truegangsteroflove

    I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. In modern times it is fair to say that our military is used for purposes of empire, so this situation with suicide and the bogus nature of our military adventures should be taught in the schools. I worked for some generals for a while, and a number of them were like Mr. Pittard. In a strange bit of irony, their manhood was threatened when presented information about transitioning to an all-volunteer Army.

  • Murphy

    Bill, I think you and others have something here. It seems very foolish to have a VA medical system that isn’t tied to the greater Medical Services System. Perhaps it is just too obvious that better and quicker care might be had. We live in MT. and our vets go to Wyoming for Scans, because they don’t have the imaging machinery in MT! The closest VA hospital from our city is a 5 hour drive away. It would make better fiscal and medical sense to have a local specialist deal with many of the issues.

  • Richard Seyman

    Warfare, especially modern warfare, is a terribly destructive, unhealthy human endeavor, one that we should work as hard as we can to reduce and to eventually eliminate. But I am not naive enough (nor brave enough) to be a pacifist. In fact, I would advocate for universal service, which would include military service rather than a volunteer military. Better for nation-building, better for a earlier end to warfare as an accepted human endeavor. As long as someone else (and the children of someone else) bare the worst burdens of war– in place of the rest of us, too few Americans will make peace a real priority.

  • Andy Tasker

    turn-stile…….check your spelling

  • Kevin

    I was unable to finish reading this article because “Thompson” was being such a jerk. Attitudes like his are ones that need changing. But I can’t stay here and continue to read his rubbish. “Act like an adult” was the final straw, for me. Adults DO commit suicide. Fact. Belittling them and making fun of them isn’t what will fix the problem, and is obviously part of what’s causing it. Get people like “Thompson” out of the military!

  • Cynthia Davis

    From what I’ve seen The Disconnect between what is portrayed and what is reality is a huge contributor. Both during service and especially after. Quite often vets cannot work their way through the rats maze of complicated and/or hidden programs to find help. Rather than a smooth one-stop efficient transition – each military and civilian service maintains their own separate rules, regs, priorities, and preferences that lead more to turf wars than help. The lucky ones are accepted and “helped through” the process by professional level representatives of organizations such as the DAV, VFW and several other groups that have been formed for specific groups. Without such help the outcome is quite often far worse.

  • Cynthia Davis

    Pllease stay alive for your baby’s sake at least. If you do, and keep making calls to the nearest Veteran’s hospial and any of the veteran’s groups that are out there someone will help. It takes time and persistence (for me far too many years) but the alternative means that there will always be a sad confusing loss for those that are left behind. Don’t let the system win at the expense of you and your family.

  • Dan Betz

    They do not mention that the antidepressants and counseling may not be ineffective either. The medical system and treatments are partially to blame after all suicide is avoidable!!!!!!

  • psych nurse

    This unfortunately is not a sincere article; if it were it would be up front with the truth; training young men to kill is a traumatic event in itself, sending them out to do it, repeatedly destroys a part of their own humanity. When you bring death and suffering to others, if you ever have any regrets or remorse, you may feel inclined to take some of the poison you have been dispensing. Another truth, is that there is no cure for suicidal urges that can be given from one person to another, any cure has to come about between the individual and his own inner quest for meaning and foregiveness in his or her own life. When that cannot be found, the desire to stop existing is related to the desire to stop failing. To be condemned in even this, paradoxically may contribute to the readiness to do it.
    The first cure then is to stop going to war and destroying our young men and women, and stop trying to treat it with chemicals, and judgements and lies (such as “we really care about you”)
    There are many healing modalities, some work for some, and some are hard to access, too hard.
    We need to become a caring and peaceful society, and stop creating war casualties. We have to acknowledge and apologize for manipulating and confusing idealistic young people who are trying to improve their own economic power and do ‘something good’ for a patriotic mission.
    That motivation has been played, and turned to a training that hardens their hearts to compassion and ultimately cares no more for them than it does for the targets they are sent to hit. The military remakes it recruits to be agents of violence and obedient to the chain of command. Of course, the ones on the front lines will be the most injured. Why are we acting as if we are surprised by this? Some of us may be scratching our heads, but the ones in charge, certainly have clarity about the motives and the costs and are okay with causing a lot of suffering for the goals being pursued,
    Let us not be confused and surprised or in denial. Sure, a lot of us “just don’t know”, but we are obedient to those who do, and we can see what we are getting for that. Remember the song “The Universal Soldier” ? Buffy St Marie also wrote one called “My country tis of thy people you are dying”. If anything is new, it has to be that we are more conscious than we used to be, hopefully.

  • JonThomas

    Excellently written.

    Once a person becomes a patient, then of course they must be accepted as such. Giving every human the best possible care is, of course, incumbent on all of us if we are to live up to our potential to show, not only perfection towards medical care, but also to show the care that should extend to all humanity.

    However…Psych Nurse, you exceeded that obligation and went to the underlying cause from which this entire discussion emanates.

    Well done!

  • Anonymous

    I agree excellently written. I am a veteran and a therapist. You have the right answer and so do several others. The problem is no one seems to listen. People in the military have no clue and people not in the mental health field have no clue.As a friend said you get more help for a broken leg than for a mental issue you can not see.I had one young man trained to kill and then of course they put him jail for injuring someone when he returned. meds and family help. I cried a lot but that didn’t help.

  • Kirti Salwe
  • Kirti Salwe

    What’s done is done! Let’s move forward and help returning veterans and those in the army. Let’s get busy we have a lot of work ahead. One life at a time!!

  • Steve Heeren

    Neither bill moyers nor karl marlantes had the nerve to mention that, according to VA figures, something like 18 current or former members of the US Military commit suicide EVERY DAY. If we truly cared for these “fighting men”, we would be taking these figures seriously. But what can you expect when you live in a country which has established a world-wide empire and refuses to look that reality in the face—unlike the British public which reveled, during its heyday, in the British Empire. Read Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson for the history and details. And all this garbage about patriotism and “serving their country” was completely undermined in the documentary, Where Do Soldiers Come From, which was aired on PBS last year. Pathetic!

  • Matrix Filia

    PTSD comes in many forms with different results. All of our veterans need help and support from us. I hope this helps some. Thank you to all the veterans and their families!

  • Iain Carstairs

    How can we send intelligent people to a place where they often have to inflict harm on innocent people or watch children die – whether they like it or not – and if so, have to cover things up like a criminal on behalf of a faceless state, and expect them to come home and be normal?

    Each generation changes; most grow more sensitive and aware than the one before. But there is also a segment who grow more callous and more violent: these are the ones who were needed at Abu Ghraib, who enjoy killing for the state, but who can also create their own massacres as we saw in the marines who kept body parts as souvenirs, after having killed old people, teenagers – even children in their beds – just for fun.

  • ZS@VoiceOfArt

    I followed Iraq Veterans Against the War as they marched to protest and educate the nation that 18 veterans a day commit suicide, 1/3 of all women in the military have been sexually abused, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were unjust. You can see these veterans and their personal stories on the wed series “Voice of Art” on YouTube. Here is a link

  • druid

    It makes me ill to think of how our troops are missused. When a man volinteers to serve his country he should not have to spend his life for the greed of oil companys. That’s not what he signed up for . The United States Military should not be used as corprate interprizes private army.
    When our government officials go to war under false pretence it does neither the soldiers or the American people a service.
    What Im trying to say is this is suppose to be a republic of the people by the people and for the people; yet our officials seem to be willing to do what ever puts money in their pockets, no matter the consequencies. No matter what the people say!
    How is any one who has to take human life in the name of greed suppose to feel good about that?
    In my opionyon it all leads back to political partys, and campain contrabutions. First of all when the people can only choose bewtteen a republican who’s controled by a corrupt party that calls bribes contrabutions and a democrat with a likewise corrupt party, there is no choise, no honest man can run and win aginst two huge corrupt machines and get elected the corrupt stay in office and every election the American people loose
    What about Seria we wont even give them support! Ill bet theres not alot of oil inSeria.
    I dont know how everyone eles feels about this but I for one am more than ready to outlaw political partys because the mute the voice of the American people, and put the people who only care about money not America , not the American people! As long as the two party system is in power the people have no voice!