Just as Americans have, for over four decades, uncomfortably turned their heads when confronted with homeless Vietnam veterans in the street, people now hear of the escalating suicide rates of our current military and go on about their business. We thought recent reports alarming enough to revisit the subject in order to remind ourselves why counter-recruitment organizations are dedicated to informing young people about harsh military realities before they decide to enlist. While experts struggle with this "epidemic" (a word used by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta), it is really quite obvious to peace activists what the problem is. Simply put, the emotional pain of war along with military demands can cause suicide.
This past summer, a Pentagon report obtained by The Associated Press revealed that suicide amongst active duty military members in 2012 was reaching an alarming rate of nearly one suicide a day, more than at any other time during these ten years of war. As of June 3, there were 154 active duty suicides, up 25% from two years ago. The number of 2012 combat deaths in Afghanistan as of the same date totaled 88.
In a November 15, 2012, Department of Defense report, the number of active duty suicides reached 166 by the end of October. This already surpasses the total active duty suicides for 2011. Add to that number the suicides by reserve duty personnel and the total is 247. According to General Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, suicide is the most frequent cause of death among Army forces, surpassing combat deaths and motor vehicle accidents. In a recent statement by General Peter Chiarelli, second in command of the Army, he noted that the suicide rate "has proven to be the most difficult challenge in my 40 years in the military."
More alarming still are the numbers of veteran suicides. As Nick Dristat of the New York Times calculates, veteran suicidal death is 25 times more likely than combat duty death. While military veterans comprise one percent of the U.S. population, 20% of all suicides are by veterans (Huffington Post). By 2017, there will be an estimated one million troops leaving the military. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 18 veterans commit suicide each day. According to a Pentagon report, cited by the Christian Science Monitor, approximately 950 veterans under VA care attempted suicide each month between October 2008 and December 2010. This does not include those who are not seeking VA care. It is nearly impossible to get accurate figures, given the nature of suicide itself. Although 68% of soldiers kill themselves with guns, a drug overdose can be judged accidental or intentional.
As military veterans face PTSD, crippling physical disabilities, brain damage, economic hardship and many emotional and family readjustments, these bleak numbers will only become more overwhelming. The military recognizes this. And such bad numbers and bad publicity can ultimately lead to a drop in enlistment.
For years, officials have struggled to improve the statistics. Despite suicide hotlines, educational and outreach programs, more mental health specialists both on and off the battlefield, and stress reduction training and research, numbers continue to rise. One variable that frustrates officials and experts is that, although multiple combat tours do point to a somewhat higher number of suicides, many are committed by those who were never deployed. Machismo, or a "just toughen up" attitude, continues to be an issue. Despite all military claims that they have become more sensitive, a senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to "act like an adult and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us." He later refused to apologize.
The suicide statistics go almost unnoticed by mainstream media and by the public. The October-November suicide numbers were mentioned as a ticker-tape announcement on the bottom of MSNBC's nightly news. The projections for returning suicidal veterans are so overwhelming in scope that most Americans choose to ignore the pain, just as they ignore the homeless and even the ongoing state of war.
Imagine how much easier our job of educating youth would be if they were shown a disclaimer by their recruiters: "Attention: Military duty may lead to suicide."
Huffington Post, September 14, 2012, “Stopping the Surge of Military Suicides: How to Win This Preventable War,” Susan Blumenthal, MD; Christian Science Monitor, November, 2012.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/)