TOPICS > Nation

More U.S. Troops Died by Suicide Than in Afghanistan Combat in 2012

January 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Suicides by active duty U.S. troops last year exceeded the number of servicemen and women killed in combat in Afghanistan. Ray Suarez talks to psychiatrist and retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, who says more than half of the soldiers who killed themselves had already sought help from a mental health professional.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And now we look at the grim aftermath of a decade of war, which has placed great stress and strain on the U.S. military.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The statistics are stunning.According to the Associated Press, suicides among active-duty troops reached a new high last year.The suicide rate has been rising since 2001.And last year, 349 service members took their lives, much more than the 295 killed in combat in Afghanistan.The suicide figures are tentative, pending completion of pathology reports later this year.

 For a look behind the numbers, we turn to Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general who had a 28-year career as an Army psychologist.He heads the Center for Translational Medicine, where he treats returning soldiers and Marines.

And, Doctor, I want to begin again with that statistic.More servicepeople died by their own hand last year than were killed in action with the enemy.Have we ever seen anything like that before?

BRIG. GEN. STEPHEN XENAKIS: Not that I know of, at all.

I don’t think we have — this is a rising trend.It’s an uptick that over the past several years, where we have seen more and more soldiers take their lives with suicide and unfortunately also die in other accidents.It’s the tip of an iceberg of a bigger problem affecting the force at large.

And it’s been under stress for, cumulatively, over the past 10 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Why is the suicide rate now persistently high when the wars themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan have been winding down?

STEPHEN XENAKIS: We have seen this before.

We saw it 20 years ago in the first Gulf War.We even in some ways saw it after Vietnam.I mean, the issues of medical health, of personal stress, of family stress, in fact, go up after the actual fighting has stopped and the soldiers redeploy, they’re back in garrison, because the force is still under a lot of stress.

And we find now, in fact, that the military is about to get into this phase of downsizing.Probably 100,000 or so Army soldiers and Marines will be leaving the military.There are going to be budget cuts.And all these things are putting great burden on the leadership and great burden on the soldiers on the front lines.

And that accumulates and builds, and it ends up that you have got that group that, in fact, will have — will commit suicide as their expression of that stress.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that accumulation of factors why you say that the number is actually going to go up before it goes down?

STEPHEN XENAKIS: Yes.I think, for the next two or three years, we’re going to see even that trend go even higher.

RAY SUAREZ: If someone is observed or in fact reports that they themselves are having troubles, suicidal ideation, playing around with guns, inability to sort of pull it together after they return to the United States, are they given long-term treatment, or are they removed from the service first?

STEPHEN XENAKIS: Well, both.

Interestingly, and sadly, over half the people who commit suicide have already seen mental health clinicians.And, you know, the treatment, there — I’m sure these people are doing their best that they can.The effectiveness varies.These are tough problems.You know, the soldiers have themselves under — have really been affected by a number different stresses.

It’s not just the emotional stress of combat and seeing their fellow soldiers killed and maimed.They have been exposed to IED blasts, have concussions.They have had — their sleep patterns are very disturbed, which causes in of itself some sort of psychiatric and psychological difficulties.

They’re exposed to toxins.They come home to family situations.And they’re young people.And young people have a lot of ups and downs.So there’s lots of different factors here.And no one is the real particular cause for these suicides.

RAY SUAREZ: When the rates started to go up, did the officers who were closest to the men at the smaller units of the military get any training in what to look out for when people came back from action?

STEPHEN XENAKIS: Well, there was some training.The Army is very good at that.

So, they clearly instructed them to look out for it and identify people and to send them.But it wasn’t the most important thing going on.I mean, they were still fighting a war.And a lot of the things that, in fact, come to light when you know that somebody is having really serious problems end up not being seen.

RAY SUAREZ: So what should we be on the lookout for?Is there any way that’s reliable to separate out, to keep an eye on people who may be in real trouble when they come back from active duty?

STEPHEN XENAKIS: There’s not one real technique or tactic you can use.

What we should recognize is that this is an epidemic, in the sense that it’s across the Army.The whole Army has been — and Marine Corps and the other services under — have been a lot of stress.And the focus, I think, is on changing the culture and making and bringing the spotlight on to the individual and everyone being concerned for the kinds of stresses that they’re showing and that may lead to the various problems.

I mean, there are problems with misconduct, with family abuse, with drug and alcohol abuse, with sexual assaults.There’s all sorts of things that really end up being the signals of these 10 years of war and stress on the individuals.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, before we go, do we have to keep an eye, keep in contact with people who served in combat longer to make sure that they are OK in the years that follow long after their service?

STEPHEN XENAKIS: I think, absolutely, because it, in fact, may not — a soldier or Marine may not, in fact, start to show the bad effects and the stresses for months or years after they have, in fact, terminated their service.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dr. Xenakis, I misidentified you as a psychologist.  You are a psychiatrist.  Thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN XENAKIS: Pleasure to be here.Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Online, meet three veterans whose lives have been changed by war.  Photojournalist Lori Grinker profiles service members dealing with PTSD.