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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Afghanistan, Iraq Veteran Army Suicide Rate Continues to Climb

The problem is clearly complex.

The reasons are many-fold, as varied and numerous and hard to pin down as are people themselves. But this much we know: Our veterans are turning to suicide at an alarming rate; and, at least for now, all of the programs and outreach and educational campaigns the military and the VA have been throwing at the problem have failed to staunch the tide.

The latest numbers do not provide relief.

Yochi Dreazen, Wall Street Journal:

Sixteen American soldiers killed themselves in October in the U.S. and on duty overseas, an unusually high monthly toll that is fueling concerns about the mental health of the nation's military personnel after more than eight years of continuous warfare. ...

The October suicide figures mean that at least 134 active-duty soldiers have taken their own lives so far this year, putting the Army on pace to break last year's record of 140 active-duty suicides. The number of Army suicides has risen 37% since 2006, and last year, the suicide rate surpassed that of the U.S. population for the first time.

It's important to note that the above figure reflects only Army suicides; it does not include data from any of the remaining military branches or from the VA. And so, if this year's active-duty Marine suicide rate is the same as it has been in previous years (41/2008; 33/2007; 25/2006), expect to add another 30-40 incidents to the above total.

And yet, that figure isn't the full measure, either.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

The WSJ has an interactive graphic of this year's suicide toll (click on the image above) alongside a few other multimedia offerings, including a video of reporter's notes.


Army officials say the strain of repeated deployments with minimal time back in the U.S. is one of the biggest factors fueling the rise in military suicides.

The Army hit a grim milestone last year when the suicide rate exceeded that of the general population for the first time: 20.2 per 100,000 people in the military, compared with the civilian rate of 19.5 per 100,000. The Army's suicide rate was 12.7 per 100,000 in 2005, 15.3 in 2006 and 16.8 in 2007.

In response, the Army has launched a broad push to better understand military suicide and develop new ways of preventing it. In August, the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health said they would conduct a five-year, $50 million effort to better identify the factors that cause some soldiers to take their own lives.

A continuing Army suicide-prevention effort has shown modest signs of progress. Forty-one active-duty soldiers killed themselves in January and February, but the monthly suicide tallies for 2009, until October, were lower than the comparable periods in 2008. Army officials are now trying to determine whether the high October numbers were an anomaly or the start of a new upsurge in military suicides.

Today, the Seattle Tacoma News-Tribune editorial board:

Combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan run as long as 15 months, and many soldiers don’t get enough down time between deployments. Combat leads to stress disorders and depression as reliably as rain leads to wetness.

Combine that with other problems found in the ranks – marital stress, alcohol abuse, financial difficulties and service injuries – and you’ve got an unusual number of soldiers suffering unusual distress. ...

Obama is now deliberating over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation that 40,000 more troops be sent to Afghanistan to avert “mission failure.” At the same time, the Pentagon is trying to give military personnel healing time between deployments.

Mathematically, the two goals don’t compute.

Last week, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended that Obama not send veterans to Afghanistan unless they have spent at least a year at home in the United States. Under that constraint, the military couldn’t deploy 40,000 more troops anytime soon. One Washington think tank, the Study of War, has concluded that no more than 15,000 soldiers and Marines will have had the requisite year at home to be deployed in the next two months.

Conclusion: The mental health of military personnel is a strategic asset that’s too often been overlooked or given short shrift. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said that “you go to war with the Army you have.” True. When the Army you have is exhausted and stressed-out from long years of overdeployment, it gets a whole lot harder to go to war.

Next month will be two years since I testified before Congress at a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing, Stopping Suicide: Mental Health Challenges Within the Department of Veterans Affairs. We've covered ground, but still have a way to go.

Alongside Moving a Nation to Care, the PTSD Timeline (see note below) was the catalyst that brought about my Congressional invitation. The timeline, which was developed in 2005, was meant to raise awareness of OEF/OIF veteran post-deployment issues reported in the press. If we transport ourselves back to that time and place, we'll remember that there wasn't much national discussion on the issue of combat trauma and PTSD at the time; in fact, the previous administration never once uttered the term when speaking of our OEF/OIF veterans, as far as I could tell (and I was following the issue quite closely at the time).

Today, thankfully, people are much more aware and our leaders are much more open and vocal about the problem.

We've come a long way, tackling the stigma by dragging combat trauma and PTSD out into the open; working to get funding in place so that our troops don't have to return to an underfunded VA; and demanding -- legally and otherwise -- our leaders come clean and speak up on the matter.

Let's pat ourselves on the back, because these are strides. Steps taken today by political and community leaders and citizens everywhere will make a great difference moving forward.

At the same time, let's remember that each one of these suicides affects a great number of people who are left feeling hurt, grief-stricken and perhaps even guilty in the wake of the action.

Every time we hear these cold, sterile figures, let's commit even more to stemming the tide. We do that by extending a life preserver to those still with us today -- troops, vets, and the military friends and family who support them day in and day out.

A Note on the PTSD Timeline
I've received a number of emails re: difficulties accessing my data in the PTSD Timeline housed at ePluribus Media. Unfortunately, the link is no longer working (and hasn't been for some time now). This summer, I emailed them a number of times to correct the problem, without any success; sadly, the original team of volunteer researchers I worked with on the project have all drawn back, needing to return to careers and other concerns (much as I have had to put public updating of the data on hold as a result of my studies these past two years).

While a citizen journalism collective can do some pretty remarkable things (and we certainly did in this case, the timeline being accessed by government officials, academic researchers and reporters alike), a weak link is the nature of the beast; volunteers eventually have to return to taking care of other long-neglected business like work, education, family, etc.

That said, I have continued collecting incidents, and I do have a full copy of the data set previously available to you all online.

Next month's graduation frees me up from studies until Fall 2010, and I'll begin developing a new home for the data. I'll update you here when it's ready. (If you'd like to keep up on my PTSD Combat posts, please sign up for FeedBurner's once-daily emails.)

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