More active and non-active duty troops died from suicide than from combat in 2012. A total of 349 suicides, or nearly one a day, the Pentagon reported last Friday. That’s a 13 percent increase over 2009, even as the military has ramped up its efforts to confront the issue.
Meanwhile, the Department of Veterans Affairs released results from a two-year study covering 42 states that shows the number of veterans committing suicide is higher than previously estimated. In 2010, an average of 22 veterans a day committed suicide, up from 18 per day. The lower estimate failed to count veterans who hadn’t sought help from the VA.
To complicate matters, about 70 percent of the veterans who committed suicide were over the age of 50, which shows the problem goes beyond the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
It’s staggering to think that today more than 20 former and current service members will lose the fight against depression, alienation, isolation, guilt, fear and the other dark enemies that lurk within. And then it will happen tomorrow and every day after until the military and mental health community figure out an effective approach.
The headline-grabbing stories related to mental illness are alarming enough.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who was based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, has been charged with capital murder in rampages that took the lives of 16 civilians, mostly women and children, in Afghanistan. He was diagnosed with PTSD before the slaughters, according to his attorney. And last Saturday, decorated SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and another man were gunned down at a shooting range near Fort Worth by Iraq war veteran Eddie Routh, who had been in and out of military hospitals. The irony is that Kyle was trying to help Routh cope with his demons.
The fear is that many more tragedies are to come, because of the unique head injuries and horrors caused by multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and the historic failure to deal with the fallout from previous wars, such as Vietnam. The Pentagon is trying to turn around the “suck it up” culture of the military. One current slogan in the mental health campaign is “Never Let Your Buddy Fight Alone.” The idea is for soldiers to encourage each other to seek help and to become effective listeners. The military has also increased support for counseling by adding more behavioral health workers.
But Army Secretary John McHugh recently noted that the military may have too many programs that aren’t well-coordinated. “Interventions are not coming as early as we would like to see them,” he said Monday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said she was encouraged that the Pentagon had done a more extensive look at veterans’ suicides, but added that this data must be turned into effective solutions.
The Pentagon can’t be faulted for not making the effort to help troops and veterans who have been damaged by the horrors of wars, but it must continue to find ways to act more effectively.
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