Gregg Zoroya, USA Today
With six weeks left in the year, the Army and Navy are already reporting record numbers of suicides, with the Air Force and Marine Corps close to doing the same, making 2012 the worst year for military suicides since careful tracking began in 2001.
The deaths are now occurring at a rate faster than one per day. On Nov. 11, confirmed or suspected suicides among active-duty forces across the military reached 323, surpassing the Pentagon's previous high of 310 suicides set in 2009.
Of that total, the Army accounted for 168, surpassing its high last year of 165; 53 sailors took their own lives, one more than last year. The Air Force and Marine Corps are only a few deaths from record numbers. Fifty-six airmen had committed suicide as of Nov. 11, short of the 60 in 2010. There have been 46 suicides among Marines, whose worst year was 2009 with 52. "We continue to reach out to and embrace those who are struggling," the Army's chief personnel officer, Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, said in a statement Sunday. "We've taken great strides to prevent suicides, but our work isn't done."
Military and medical leaders have been searching for answers to what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta describes as an "epidemic" of suicides ever since the numbers began increasing among soldiers and Marines in 2005.
Military suicide researcher David Rudd sees a direct link with the effects of combat and frequent deployments.
"The reason you're going to see record numbers is because these wars are drawing down and these young men and women are returning home," Rudd said. "When they return home, that's where the conflicts surface."
While post-traumatic stress disorder was not a factor in large numbers of suicides, data show, among nearly 85% there were failed relationships, something linked to frequent separations.
Still, at at least a third of soldiers who killed themselves this year never went to war, and some leaders draw a correlation with societal stress, perhaps related to the poor economy. "This is not just a military issue or an Army issue," said Gen. Lloyd Austin III, Army vice chief of staff. "Across the military, we're a microcosm of what's in the nation," said Navy Vice Adm. Martha Herb, director personnel readiness.
The trend in suicides now seems to be impacting the branches that have had fewer troops in combat: the Navy and Air Force. Suicide rates for the military, while rising, have remained lower than for the general population until this year. The current rate for the Army is close to 30 per 100,000, outpacing an estimated 24-per-100,000 rate among a demographically similar civilian population, according to military statistics.
The record-setting numbers reported by the military pertain only to active duty troops. The Army, for example, has recorded an additional 114 suicides among G.I.s in the National Guard or Reserve who were demobilized — its citizen soldiers.
When Army suicides among those on active duty and demobilized status are combined, the number exceeds the 207 soldiers who have died so far this year in Afghanistan, a difference further skewed because some of those combat zone deaths were also suicides.
The military in recent years has invested more than $50 million in research efforts to produce evidence-based tools for preventing suicide. Among the first studies is one involving 50 soldiers who attempted suicide at Fort Carson, Colo. It recently found that by teaching them meditation and relaxation skills to manage emotions and relationships, suicidal behavior was dramatically reduced, said Rudd, who is leading the research.
"We weren't thinking about the issue as really one of curing mental illness," he said. "(It) is about installation of hope."