Why Soldiers Keep Losing to Suicide

A member of the Army I Corps band plays "Taps" at a memorial service for U.S. Army Spc. Brittany Gordon, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Wash. Gordon was killed in Afghanistan on Oct. 13, 2012, when officials say an Afghan intelligence officer detonated the suicide vest he was wearing while Gordon and other soldiers were delivering furniture to an intelligence office.

A member of the Army I Corps band plays "Taps" at a memorial service for U.S. Army Spc. Brittany Gordon, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012, at Joint Base Lewis McChord, Wash. Gordon was killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber.

December 20, 2012

Most soldiers who take their own lives today have no history of deployment. They’ve never seen combat, never been to war.

Nobody really knows why.

And although the military’s suicide problem flared during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so far it doesn’t seem to be ending with them.

About 53 percent of those who died by suicide in the military in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, had no history of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan, according (pdf) to the Defense Department. And nearly 85 percent of military members who took their lives had no direct combat history, meaning they may have been deployed but not seen action.

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“So we’re dealing with broader societal issues,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a June speech. “Substance abuse, financial distress and relationship problems — the risk factors for suicide — also reflect problems … that will endure beyond war.”

While suicide has increased across all branches of the military over the last decade, the Army has seen the most significant spikes.

According to figures released last week, there were 303 suicides in the Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve so far this year.  Of these, 93 deaths are still under investigation.  Last year, the Army had 283 suicides.

Causes of suicide are complex and unique to each individual, so there’s no simple reason why service members are taking their lives in greater numbers now.

But findings by experts who have studied the problem in the military offer some insight into what military leaders now recognize as one of their greatest challenges.

The Stresses of War

The military’s suicide problem seems to be rooted partly in the strain of war. The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for 11 years, most of them while also battling a protracted insurgency in Iraq. Deployments for many service members were extended, sometimes up to 15 months.

That stress has increased the burden on all service members, regardless of whether they’ve been deployed, said Craig Bryan, a psychology professor and associate director of the National Center of Veterans’ Studies at the University of Utah, where he studies the link between military stress and suicide.

Confirmed 2012 Under Investigation Total 2012 Total 2011
Army (includes Guard and Reserve) 210 93 303 283
2012 2011
(includes Reserves)
62 59
Marines 46 32
Air Force
(includes Guard and Reserves)
71 70
Coast Guard
(includes Reserves)
6 7

*Data reported by each military branch as of December 2012

He’s conducting a three-year study, now nearly completed, to try to better understand the root cause of suicide in the military. One thing he noticed: stress levels across the military began rising in 2004, even among those who hadn’t deployed, along with the suicide rate.

“Even if I’m not deployed, if everyone else at my base is, there are less people around to do the same jobs,” Bryan said. “I have more work that I have to accomplish. If I’m not deploying … everyone else is going and I’m left behind, I’m not pulling my weight.”

A unit’s deployment history can be as important as that of an individual soldier’s in determining whether that person is at risk for suicide, said Dr. Elspeth Ritchie, previously the Army’s top psychiatrist and now the chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia’s mental health department.

Ritchie studied the past 10 years of suicides in the Army, and found that bases that suffered the most suicides tended to be those where units were deploying rapidly, she said.

It wasn’t just because soldiers were seeing more combat, she said. Returning soldiers have less time or energy to connect with new recruits or those who haven’t deployed.

The elevated pace also leaves commanders with less time to form personal relationships with the soldiers in their charge, meaning they’re less likely to spot troubled troops until it’s too late.

“These sergeants will tell me, ‘We’re moving so fast, I don’t have time, I don’t know my men and women,'” Ritchie said. “The sergeants who in the past took care of the new kids are so busy preparing for the next (deployment), there just isn’t the same sense of cohesion that we used to have.”

That loss of cohesion can leave soldiers who aren’t being deployed feeling disconnected and without a sense of purpose — one of the risk factors for suicide — in positions where firearms are in easy reach. Most military suicides involve guns, either service weapons or personal firearms.

What the Military’s Doing Now

The Pentagon has been spending millions to figure out why service members are taking their lives in greater numbers now. Suicide prevention has become a “top priority” for the military, Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said in an email. “Our most valuable resource within the department is our people. We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military.”

The military has launched a $50 million study of mental health — the largest it has ever done — to better understand the risks and factors that lead to suicide, to be completed in 2014. It’s also spending about $17 million on a team of researchers to come up with solutions unique to the military.

In the meantime, it has increased the number of behavioral health care providers by 35 percent over the past three years, both in primary care settings and embedded in units deployed to the front lines. The goal: to make sure every service member is screened for depression or suicidal thoughts, even when they’re just getting routine physical check-ups. The military has also expanded its crisis hotline to Europe, and plans to open one in Japan soon. (The number is 1-800-273-8255.)

The military has unfurled a host of suicide prevention programs and initiatives.

Service members are encouraged to look out for their “battle buddies” when it comes to mental health, using, in true military fashion, acronyms. For the Army, Navy and Air Force, it’s ACE: Ask your buddy if he’s having suicidal thoughts, Care about your buddy, and Escort your buddy to a health-care provider if they might harm themselves. It’s being taught across the military as one of the best practices for suicide prevention. The Marines also have NLMB: Never Leave a Marine Behind.

The military has also started to “talk about” finding ways to restrict quick access to weapons for those troops who might be at risk, such as gun locks, and better tracking of service members’ personal weapons, said Rajeev Ramchand, a RAND analyst who conducted a 2011 analysis of the military’s suicide prevention efforts.

Suicide’s Lingering Stigma

The military culture, rooted in resilience, has struggled to deal with the problem.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, at the time the Army’s second-in-command, said the stigma of suicide is “especially pronounced in the military,” in a report (pdf) released earlier this year assessing the health of the Army.

“Acknowledging a problem, particularly anything associated with an individual’s mental health, is frequently perceived as admitting weakness or failure,” he wrote, and noted “the perception among Leaders and Soldiers that help-seeking behavior will either be detrimental to their career (e.g., prejudicial to promotion or selection to leadership positions) or that it will reduce their social status among their peers.”

The military has found that only about half of service members who need help seek treatment, Chiarelli said.

People within and outside the military who are working to end suicide say that it’s up to the commanders to challenge those perceptions. Chiarelli, for example, had been a strong advocate for combating the stigma before he retired earlier this year. (He is now the chief executive of One Mind for Research, a nonprofit group dedicated to curing brain disorders.)

But in May, a blunt blog post by Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, the commander of Fort Bliss, Texas, summed up the sentiment that some victims’ advocates say remains pervasive in the military.

“I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act,” Pittard wrote, in comments that have since been scrubbed from the website. “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”

Pittard’s remarks surprised advocates because the major general had worked hard to reduce suicide in the military. But the day he pounded out that blog post, he had just returned from a memorial service for a soldier who had killed himself in front of his six-year-old daughters. Pittard later retracted his remarks, saying that they were “hurtful” and “not in line with the Army’s guidance regarding sensitivity to suicide.” “With my deepest sincerity and respect towards those whom I have offended, I retract that statement,” he said.

Still, that blog post “throws us back years,” said Kim Ruocco, who directs suicide outreach for survivors at the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. “When you say someone’s a malingerer, dropping their pack, it’s a weak thing to do — it completely sets everybody back.”

Ruocco’s own husband, a major in the Marines, took his life after a deployment in Iraq, where he had flown 70 combat missions. Before he died, she said, he worried that if his commanders knew he was struggling, they would think he wasn’t strong enough to go back to war.

That stigma can work even harder on those who haven’t deployed, according to Bryan and Ritchie: Those who have never been deployed might feel even more ashamed to admit to being depressed, for fear that others might think they’d never be tough enough to go.

No Simple Answers

Melinda Pickerel doesn’t know why her son took his life, but not being deployed might have been one of the stressors that overwhelmed him.

Either way, his story underscores the difficulties in finding any one solution for the military’s suicide problem.

Charles Parsons, who was known to his family as Adam, was a smart young man who enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from high school, in 1998, at age 19, Pickerel said.

He served on the U.S.S. Maryland, a ballistic missile submarine, for three years, and married a woman he’d fallen in love with shortly before he’d gone to boot camp.

Then life became more difficult. Parsons’ wife was diagnosed with a mental illness. His younger brother, a Navy security officer, was deployed to Iraq.

Parsons, who was never deployed, was moved to a different job as an electronics technician on Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia — a move he considered a demotion.

A week before his death, Parsons reported to work unshaven and unkempt. He was ordered to report the next day to the captain in his dress uniform for a reprimand.

The next day, Parsons reported for duty as scheduled. He went home a few hours later to change into his dress blues. He said goodbye to his wife and left the house.

He never reported to the captain.

Parsons’ body was found in the trunk of his car outside his home in January 2007. He’d shot himself. He was 27, and he left no note.

His mother said the Navy was supportive after Parsons’ death, even if officials didn’t have any answers, either.

“He sunk into a depression and it just got so bad that nobody, none of his co-workers recognized,” she said.

“He hid it very well.”

Listen to a radio segment produced in collaboration with this story from PRI’s The World.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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