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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