Foreign Policy

Suicide in the Services

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Not pleasant to think about on this evening and weekend traditionally set aside for family and giving thanks, but all the costs of war and a huge world-sprawling military are worth considering. See this sobering Congressional Quarterly account of U.S. military suicides:

More U.S. military personnel have taken their own lives so far in 2009 than have been killed in either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars this year….As of Tuesday, at least 334 members of the military services have committed suicide in 2009, compared with 297 killed in Afghanistan and 144 who died in Iraq, the figures show…..

So far in 2009, the Army has had 211 of the 334 suicides, while the Navy had 47, the Air Force had 34 and the Marine Corps (active duty only) had 42….

Armed forces personnel traditionally have had a much lower suicide rate than the population at large. Because the most recently available national suicide statistics from the Centers for Disease Control are from 2006, it is impossible to know whether the current military rate is higher than the current civilian rate. However, the civilian suicide rate for males ages 20-29 hovered around 20 per 100,000 during the first half of this decade. The Army said its suicide rate is now a bit higher than that for the first time.

Moreover, the total number who have killed themselves in 2009 is probably higher than 334, because the figure does not include unavailable suicide statistics for 2009 for Marine Corps reservists or veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have left the service.

The veterans' numbers, in particular, could yet swell the totals considerably. The Department of Veterans Affairs said an average of 53 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans committed suicide each year between 2002 and 2006. And that number only includes suicides among the quarter of all veterans who use the VA's health system.

The Army says only 1/3 2/3 [thanks to commenter Art-P.O.G. for pointing out my error] of the suicides are from active duty soldiers who have actually been deployed in either of our two ongoing wars in the news, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the stresses and separation from home and family of military life obviously take their toll even if not actively involved in a combat zone. A wonderfully empassioned attack on the anti-family aspect of world-straddling militaries and constant ongoing wars is contained within the pages of occasional Reason magazine contributor Bill Kauffman's great recent book Ain't My America.

NEXT: Rogue's Gallery

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  1. I blame Glenn Beck and Fox News. Who would want to live in a world that trashes Obama?

  2. Two guys hung themselves on my ship during WESTPAC in 1993, one of them 6 feet from my rack.

    It’s a tough environment.

    1. Something house-dwellers easily forget.

  3. Not much intimacy, no kids around, very stressful, you’re placed in a position where you need to kill innocent people…………it’s a horrible environment.

    1. Killing innocent people will actually get you in trouble in the services and is very actively discouraged in EVERY level of training. You need to kill enemy combatants, which isn’t nearly as stressful as the possibility of dying yourself is.

  4. doesn’t seem evident one way or another that there is proof that being in the military makes you more likely to commit suicide.

    1. Even parity with the general population would be a negative trend. Suicide rates vary wildly by gender, age, race, income, profession, etc. The article states that the suicide rate for military personnel was “much lower” and now it is comparable to the population at large. That is a bad trend.

      1. Statistics need to be adjusted due to the fact that the military has a higher rate of males than females than the general population. This would certainly skew the amount of suicides since men commit more suicides than women in the general population.

  5. People kill themselves for various reasons. How does the military rate compare with the civilian rate?

    I’ve seen more suicide than most of you will. It doesn’t make any more sense, and it is as difficult to understand, whether military or civilian.

    1. I’m scared to ask why you’ve seen more suicide than most of us.

  6. Is the suicide rate comparable, higher, or lower to the civilian population after adjusting for demographics (age, ethnicity, education)?

    In the absence of this information, this is a total non-story for anyone who understands statistics … or to rephrase the story line …

    People in the military sometimes commit suicide. We have no idea if this is higher or lower than for comparable civilians. We don’t know if being in the military increases or decreases one’s risk.

    But, ummm, panic! Doom! DOOOOOM!

    1. It is a problem, but primarily with the Army. If you read the article, the Army owned 211 of the 349 suicides. The other branches are actually statistically and numerically doing better than last year.

      Even without adjusting the data for demographics, the Army’s increase in suicides from 9.8 per 100,000 in 2002 to 20.2 per 100,000 in 2009 is pretty disturbing. I would say that empirically, if this was a trend among 20 somethings, you would see similar increases in the other branches (you don’t) and the streets would be littered with youth suicides in the civilian sector (it isn’t). Therefore it is a problem.

      1. Sorry
        …the Army owned 211 of the 334…

  7. “the stresses and separation from home and family of military life obviously take their toll”

    Uh, what the hell did these people expect when they ALL VOLUNTEERED! Maybe I don’t get it since I’m a Marine brat, but are people really that clueless as to what military life entails? Do they ever watch the news? Don’t they know we are engaged in 2 wars and have troops stationed in 140 other countries? WTF.

    1. NUTHIN’ can EVER prepare you for ANYTHING the military can toss at you. As a civilian you can watch movies about it, turn on the TV, and play all the HALO you want but you ain’t gonna know SH*T till you’re drowning in it. Then, once you’re in, They can train you, yell at you, and psyche you up for it but until it’s NO SH*T THIS IS REAL there is just no way to gauge what manner of coin will be paid for survival.

      Doesn’t matter where or how you served, being in uniform is like being force fed a powerful medicine by a mad scientist named Uncle Sam. The RIGHT dose can make you better and the WRONG can damage you while sometimes you’re unlucky enough to be allergic which Uncle Sam doesn’t realize until Lady Liberty is doing the autopsy.

      And, yeah, we all *ahem* volunteered so to speak. That can make your demons all the more maniacal late at night when you have to blame yourself for the Tesla Cluster F*CK that you’re life has become!

      1. So you’re saying they ARE a bunch of clueless dumbfucks?

        1. Everything and everyone on the planet is a clueless dumbfuck my child.

          There are no exceptions to this natural law.

          It’s just that being in the service is the best way to truly understand.

          Kind of like how you never really think about gravity till after you fall down the stairs.

          1. “‘Look, brat…'” and “Clueless?” has/have a point.

            1. I would agree with that. Although my service was nearly forty years ago things cannot have changed all that much.

          2. Your comment is bullshit. Understand what? That when you join the military during 2 ongoing wars you might be away from your family and friends for extended periods of time and maybe you’ll see your buddies get their heads blown off? Does that really come as a big surprise when it happens? Don’t you think it might be smart to consider the consequences of your actions BEFORE you sign up and prepare yourself for that eventuality?

            1. Of course not! Then they wouldn’t get to play the victim card, silly! For the record, my 18yo signed up last year(Army) fully aware that her job could easily become a bloodbath. She was confident that, no matter what happened, she was strong enough to handle it. You can’t predict, but you can be strong.

              1. This is true. But I think it’s helpful to have a family member or friend who can try to give you some pointers on the military life.

  8. My buddy blew his head off 4 months after coming back from Iraq. He was popping those pills that the shrinks prescribe for depression/PTSD and the side effects are…………guess what?……bouts of suicidal tendencies. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Over. There is some investigative journalism that has looked into this but I can’t understand why this is not a national scandal and disgrace. To me the pill pushers are to blame.

    1. I never understood how any doctor could say with a straight face that the cure will give you the exact same problem that you came in for. I guess with all our tech some areas are still way behind.

      1. Perhaps I can explain. The SSRIs given to depressed people have anxiolytic properties: they reduce anxiety/fear.

        So, a depressed person feels a bit better from the meds, but sometimes they’re still suicidal. Most suicidal people don’t complete suicide because they are too afraid–but when they’re on drugs that reduce fear….

        Basically, the SSRIs are worth it, but family and friends need to keep a closer eye on suicidal people for a while after they start taking the drugs. SSRIs and psychotherapy really do help, on average, but yes there can be tragic downsides as well.

        1. The pills enable them to be more unafraid of committing suicide?

          I really hope they are worth it.

          1. Ever needed them and taken them? They’re fucking worth it.

            1. Agreed, even though I’m happier off them. For me, there was a brief positive effect, and then nothing, although while on them my brain learned how to slow down when dealing with stressful situations.

              1. Ding! Ding! That’s what they’re for.

    2. I found an article about this. This appeared in Time Magazine in 2008. America’s Medicated Army by Mark Thompson. It comes up 1st on Google.

  9. During my only MEDRUN in the Navy I had two incidents with my boat…

    One of the cooks intentionally overdosed on sleeping pills and apple vodka in a Turkish hotel room. Not a pretty way to find your buddy when you stumble back from a brothel at dawn.

    The other…well…ten years later, after seeing Fort Hood, I’ve had to wonder about how many similar incidents were stopped in time throughout the service over the years.

    You see, it was a little past midnight in the middle of the Med and I’m on the helm, when one of the weapons department guys (a torpedoman) comes up to the control room and tells the Officer of The Deck that he needs the keys to the gun locker. Perfectly ordinary, as maintenance of the small arms (M16s, Shotguns, and 9 mils) is part of his regular duties. Thing was, the WEPS (Weapons Officer) just happened to be standing nearby and started asking questions. The officer wasn’t out to bust his balls or anything but he was curious, as earlier that day the guns had just had their scheduled maintenance completed. The WEPS confessed later that he had just thought the guy had simply wanted to double check something as OCD is damn near a survival skill in the Navy. I still remember the Torpedoman’s voice to this day, it had this weird tone that I’ve yet to hear repeated, but he said “I need to stop everyone from f*ck*ng my wife” and then he started talking about how he needed to “get blood for blood”. He never got anywhere near the weapons locker and three days later he never got anywhere near a ship again either.

    Later on, we found out that his wife had gotten pregnant by one of his “buddies” from boot camp and he had found out about it in a no sh*t genuine Dear John Letter WITH the ultra sound included the very day we put out to sea for over sixty days submerged. I know, compared to other service members suffering this was minor but everyone has their own cracks in the armor. Thing was, he had never left any hints about anything being wrong till he lost it, even in hindsight the crew couldn’t think of anything out of the ordinary.

    To this day I could only guess about what he had planned but I do know that it was pure LUCK that the Weapons Officer had overhead him asking for the gun locker keys. The worst part about it all is that the Torpedoman was a pretty nice guy and not the kind you’d suspect of such a thing.

    I hate to sound cliche, but I guess he just snapped. The whole thing still makes me nervous when I think about it a decade later.

  10. Forgive me if my understanding on this isn’t correct. I have no military experience, in large part due to family members who did, and couldn’t wait to get the fuck out.

    Didn’t they change it so that ‘volunteers’ could be called back for tours of duty when they should have already finished their commitments? IOW, you signed up for two years active duty, do two tours in Afghanistan, and they say “sorry, you’re coming back for one more. And maybe another one after that.”

    The uncertainty and stress that could provoke are mind-boggling. The Armed forces learned in WWII that never ending tours produce serious psychological problems, which is why they switched to one-and-out by Vietnam. The soldiers could count on getting the fuck out on a certain date, unless they decided to re-up. If they have indeed gone back to the potentially “never-ending” tour, I can see why suicides would go up.

    1. They got a whole range of options for keeping you in service. When a body enlists, they are actually signing up for EIGHT years not four or six like they think. That two or four more is reserve time that is obligated if you only do the initial enlistment. If you re-up for more years after your first tour then that reserve time will be eaten up by the new tour.

      So, if I first enlisted for four years and then extended for another two of active duty then I’d still have two years left for the reserves.

      If I signed up initially for four and then re-enlisted for another four then I wouldn’t have any reserve time left.

      Then you also have things like stop loss which means that the military can just turn around and say that even though your time is up you’ll leave when we say which can legally be for many years.

      Fun, right? It says all this right in your enlisted contract but who reads the fine print anymore?

      1. These days (at least when I enlisted), they pointed those facts out to us a couple times. So at least MEPS has been more “up-front” or what have you.

        1. They pointed it out back in 88 when I first enlisted.

        2. They pointed it out when I first enlisted as well (back in 88), I’m sure the recruiters are still above board on this.

          1. They pointed it out in 2008 when my kid enlisted, too.

  11. sub box kicker – I didn’t realize it even had to be as long as four years. In the mid 80’s, my cousin did Basic + Ranger training + 2 years active duty. Of course, we weren’t fighting a couple wars at the time.

    BTW – did you go through Orlando, or Great Lakes? I know ONTC had a sub school while it was there. Now, the base is a chi-chi property development.

    1. Far as I know it’s still 4, 6, or 8 but I’ve heard talk of bringing back 2 or 3 as well.

      I went to Great Mistakes as Orlando had just closed the year before.

      Also, the sub training at ONTC was for the Nuke crowd and while all the “coners” (non nuclear trained personel) had to train in Connecticut. Being from Orlando, I was really hating life come winter in that place.

  12. In reference to some above:

    Like the post and the excerpts say, while historically military members have had somewhat lower suicide rates than people with the same demographics, the rates have recently risen to to point where the military rate exceeds the rate for the general population with the same demographic. (roughly males 20-29)

    The raw numbers are up and the percentages are up. The causality though, is unlikely solely due to deployments, as like the article says, a majority of the cases involve servicemembers who have never been deployed.

    1. Does this take into account ethnicity? The army’s ethnic makeup contains fewer whites than the civilian population.

  13. Sixty days submerged is pretty hardcore. I’ve always had hella respect for submarine crews.

  14. Kolohe: what percentage of the Army has actually been deployed? Given the number of support troops is something like 10 or 12 to 1, I’m guessing it’s a lot lower than 1/3, even accounting for support troops who are deployed.

    If only 10% of troops get deployed, yet account for 33% of the suicides, there is probably a correlation.

  15. Kolohe: what percentage of the Army has actually been deployed? Given the number of support troops is something like 10 or 12 to 1, I’m guessing it’s a lot lower than 1/3, even accounting for support troops who are deployed.

    Looking at combat patches on major installations and even counting newer Soldiers (straight out of TRADOC), I’d estimate around 70% of the Army has deployed. Maybe even closer to 80%.

    BakedPenguin: support troops deploy nearly as consistently as combat arms troops.

  16. There are some useful charts at Wikipedia: Epidemiology of suicide. But nothing there on rates for certain professions or suicides among soldiers. The main value is to see just how wildly variable suicide rates are among groups and among areas. Maybe there’s less lithium in the water in Nevada or something. Perhaps the rise in suicides has more to do with having more soldiers spend more time in areas with moderate to high suicide rates (like the area around Fort Hood) when they prepare for deployments.

    1. I’d assume the suicide rate is so high in Nevada because of Vegas & Reno (gambling).

      1. The suicide rate is high throughout the Mountain West, including Utah, which outlaws gambling.

        1. It’s not for lack of sunshine. Sunny Colorado is worse than cloudy Washington and Oregon. Cloudy San Francisco isn’t as bad as wine country.

          Maybe a weak correlation might be found for altitude?

          1. Could be heat, I know the crime rate rises with the temperature.

        2. Hmmm…does Dondero live out in the Mountain West?

      2. Also divorce rates.

  17. For instance, parts of the Ordnance branch are always deployed (EOD, mechanics), Quartermaster (unit supply, cooks), MPs, Military Intelligence, Journalists, etc. Some are embedded into combat arms units and some deploy with support units at company, battalion or even brigade level.

  18. I forgot to mention the Transportation Corps and fuelers and medics, but you get the idea. Technically none of these career fields are combat arms.

  19. Also, most units deploy by brigade. And something like 80%-90% of the personnel in the brigade will usually deploy. Even on the rear detachment, many or even most of the Soldiers have already deployed.
    Even though the focus on deployed brigades is on Brigade Combat Teams (and Cavalry Regiments), other types of brigades also deploy: Fires Brigades, Sustainment Brigades, Combat Aviation Brigades.

  20. Art, thanks for the correction. I assumed supply train, intel, etc. made up a much larger portion of the Army.

    I also should have been more specific in my reply to Kolohe – I meant “deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan”. I have to imagine that being deployed to Weisbaden isn’t as stressful as Jalalabad.

    Rimfax – it’s the entire Mountain Time Zone. I’m kind of surprised, I didn’t think it would be so bad to live there.

  21. I should add that if you were referring specifically to deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan, then my original argument is DOA.

  22. Well, you’re half-right. The logisitical apparatus of the Army is extremely large. But it’s also highly mobile. While some of the civilians who work for the DoD and the Army deploy, for the most part they stay in garrison, while their uniformed counterparts usually deploy to Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan sooner or later.

    You used the terminology correctly the first time. “Deployed” does mean to a combat zone or direct support of a combat zone. Wiesbaden is a permanent duty assignment and not a deployment.

    It’s funny that you mention Wiesbaden. I was stationed near there during my first duty assignment. I’m still stationed in Germany, but the thing is the units who are stationed in Germany or Italy (and sometimes the ones stationed in Korea AFAIK) still deploy to places like Iraq and Afghanistan from the European theater.

    Like me, for instance. I’ve been overseas for a very long time.

  23. Well, you’re half-right. The logisitical apparatus of the Army is extremely large. But it’s also highly mobile. While some of the civilians who work for the DoD and the Army deploy, for the most part they stay in garrison, while their uniformed counterparts usually deploy to Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan sooner or later.

    You used the terminology correctly the first time. “Deployed” does mean to a combat zone or direct support of a combat zone. Wiesbaden is a permanent duty assignment and not a deployment.

    It’s funny that you mention Wiesbaden. I was stationed near there during my first duty assignment. I’m still stationed in Germany, but the thing is the units who are stationed in Germany or Italy (and sometimes the ones stationed in Korea AFAIK) still deploy to places like Iraq and Afghanistan from the European theater.

    Like me, for instance. I’ve been overseas for a very long time.

  24. Damn, the squirrels got me. Anyway, the short story is that no matter how much of a pogue you are, you can count on deploying these days.

    Even among troops who’ve deployed, the experiences are wildly different and hard to really stereotype. If you’re Ranger or SF you’ve probably seen some serious action, and if you’re Infantry or Armor, it’s probably too.
    But among support troops, there’s no telling. There are a lot of truckers, medics, fuelers and engineers who’ve been in the thick of serious combat and also probably a lot who haven’t.

  25. Which is the reason they came up with the Combat Action Badge, but then that award can be kind of deceiving, too.

  26. I knew a guy in Gulf War I who worked in the mailroom. At one point during a Scud attack, a mailbag fell on him while he was taking cover and he hurt his back. He got a medal for that. Which one, I don’t know.

    1. I hate to laugh at somebody else’s pain, but that’s pretty funny and yet if he got a Purple Heart for that, it would probably be the weakest Purple Heart I’ve ever heard of.

      1. Of course, you perfectly nailed how suspect some people’s Combat Action Badges may be.

  27. My understanding of the numbers is what Art said above. About 3/4 of the army (that has been in 3 years or longer)* has deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan at least once.

    *Which is another thing complicating the stats. Suicides skew on the young side within the 20-29 demographic, so the most at risk, in general, may be the pool that hasn’t deployed *yet* (because for instance they’re still in training). This may mask a more direct correlation between deployments and depression/suicide etc. unless one accounts for it.

    In any event, the service branches are taking some action; there has been a marked uptick in suicide awareness and prevention training at both the all hands and leadership level over the past year. How effective it is is another matter, but people are noticing a problem that needs to be addressed.

    1. There are so many suicide awareness PSAs on AFN, and you’re right: the services have a lot of new material on the subject.

  28. Nice try Brian, but you’re showing your utter ignorance of the US Military, having never served yourself.

    When I was in the Navy in the early 1980s, suicides were very common. Hell, during deployments it was common to lose 20 to 30 to suicide on an Aircraft Carrier.

    Guys would kill themselves for no reason: Getting busted for drugs, girlfriend back home breaking up with them, even for a stupid fight with one of their shipmates over chow.

    And they’d kill themselves in quite dramatic fashion too, jumping off the flight deck – 9 stories high – into the Pacific Ocean never to be found ever again, blowing their brains out in the chow hall in front of everyone, ect…

    Only non-Veterans would think that somehow there’s been a sudden increase in suicides since the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Nice attempt at leftwing propoganda there Brian.

    Fail.

    1. Ooh, this is good sockpuppetry/performance art. Well done.

    2. You must have been in a different Navy than I was. I did 2 Westpacs, 1 Med, and various shorter deployments (NATO exercises and such) and didn’t see any suicides.

      1. Perhaps the units that Eric served on had a higher rate of suicide than the ones he didn’t serve on.

        1. Threadwinner!

  29. According to the linked article

    one-third of the active-duty soldiers who killed themselves in 2009 have no deployment history, according to Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli.

    Which means 2/3 of the active-duty soldiers who killed themselves do have a deployment history.

    Which means Doherty misworded the last part of this article.

  30. Which also causes the statistics to make more sense.

  31. Brian – Just in case you are confused, this is Reason Online. Confirmation Bias Online is a completely different site. They are very interested in one-year statistical “trends.”

  32. The reasons are unjust war, collateral damage and friendly fire.

    It is not difficult to see what the problem is. Same reasons Hasan shot all those people. Same reasons JA Muhammad shot all those people. Same reasons McVeigh helped blow up all those people. If you thought you knew terrorism, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

  33. If you thought you knew terrorism, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

    We surrender, Dave W.! Just quit commenting, please!

  34. But seriously, Dave W., what do Adam Kokesh, Oliver Stone and a whole bunch of people you’ve never heard of have to do with the people you just listed? STFU, Dave W.

  35. What’s the rate of suicide in other fighting organizations, like the Green Lantern Corps? Stationed out in the Omega Quadrant, many light years from your family in soundless, absolute zero environments can be quite stressful…

  36. Holy fucking shit…DONNDDERROOOOO and HFCS Dave in one thread? That’s a win, Brian. You just won…something.

  37. not only that but a lot of the wounded are coming back from the war and are having problems getting adequate treatment. many turn to illegal drugs from heroin to cannabis. I know more than a few personally and spent time down at Walter Reed with a wounded friend of mine a few years ago.

    1. not only that but a lot of the wounded are coming back from the war and are having problems getting adequate treatment.

      How so?

      Is not the government providing it?

      1. they aren’t getting adequate pain relief so they turn to the streets to get the meds they need. depression, anxiety, and PTSD is also undertreated.

  38. Perhaps the units that Eric served on had a higher rate of suicide than the ones he didn’t serve on.

    Threadwinner!

    Indeed.

    Holy fucking shit…DONNDDERROOOOO and HFCS Dave in one thread? That’s a win, Brian. You just won…something.

    Also true.

    Also: Woo-hoo! Brian Doherty shouted me out! Other than my donation, this is the only time I’ve actually been useful to Reason!

  39. “Same reasons Hasan shot all those people. ”

    Yah, unsuccessfully trying to convert your patients to islam can be pretty stressful.

  40. Eric served in a different navy than I did too. I can think of no cases of suicide during my nine years active or 26 years as a navy contractor, unless one counts the guys that drank so much that they suffocated in their own puke, and then I can think of two cases. And both of these guys were steamin’ seaman assigned to a floating drydock’s deck force.

    Then again, even when I was on a sub tender and excpet for the jarheads in the security force, I tended to only be around those that either were submariners or at least eligable for submarine duty. And submariners really are above average, so it would not surprise me if submariners had a lower suicide rate than the rest of the navy. It is possible to be a Navy surface officer and not have the minimum required test scores to go to the A-school I did, let alone nuke power schools. I’d be willing to bet that the aviation maintenance and rangers don’t have the suicide rate that ordinary infantry do either.

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