New Pentagon statistics show that suicides among U.S. troops are increasing, averaging about one a day. The Pentagon reports that 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year outnumber troops killed in action by about 50 percent .
Associated Press (AP) reports that the statistics reflect a military under the pressure of the demands of active service first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. The report also notes an increase in sexual assaults, alcohol abuse and domestic violence among servicemen.
Statistics show there have also been an increase in the number of troops killed by Afghan troops and an increase in scandals involving U.S. troops.
The 2012 surge caught military authorities unprepared because the rates had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, AP reports. A seeming contradiction is that it comes at a time the U.S. is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
Suicide numbers began surging in 2006 and peaked in 2009, then leveled off. The rates have increased again this year. AP notes that the statistics include only active-duty troops. Statistics of veterans who returned to civilian life after fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan are not included. But RT reports that a study published in 2011 revealed that the rate of attempted suicide among all US soldiers both active duty and veterans, was around 18-per-day. The shocking rates led many to suggest that adverse economic conditions that veterans face when reabsorbed to civilian life may explain why suicide rates are high among veterans.
A comparison of the data shows that while 2012 recorded an active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3, there were 130 cases in the same period last year. This is an 18 percent increase, and significantly more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon projected for the same period. The projection was based on the 2001-2011 trend.
This year's January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago and 16 percent ahead of the rate for 2009, the year that ended with the highest total thus far.
The reasons for the renewed upsurge are uncertain, but a few explanations have been offered. Many analysts have, for instance, identified combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, prescription drug abuse and personal financial problems. According to AP, data suggest that soldiers with multiple combat tours are at the greatest risk of committing suicide, but it has also been observed that a significant number of suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.
This is not the first time that suicide totals have exceeded U.S.combat deaths in Afghanistan. A similar pattern was observed in 2008 and 2009 and military officials are stumped by the fact that the numbers are rising at a time in which authorities have intensified efforts to encourage troops to seek professional help with their mental health problems.
AP reports that Jackie Garrick, head of Defense Suicide Prevention Office at the Pentagon, said in an interview that authorities are worried by the surging suicide rates and that mental health experts are working to understand suicide behavior. She said: "We are very concerned at this point that we are seeing a high number of suicides at a point in time where we were expecting to see a lower number of suicides." She added: "What makes one person become suicidal and another not is truly an unknown."
Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general, who is now a practicing psychiatrist, said: "It's a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war. We've seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison."
Observers say that many servicemen with mental health issues are unwilling to seek help because it may be seen as a sign of weakness and may hamper future professional advancement. AP reports that Kim RuocCo, widow of Marine Major John Ruocco, a helicopter pilot who hanged himself in 2005, commented on the circumstances of her husband's suicide: "He was so afraid of how people would view him once he went for help. He thought that people would think he was weak, that people would think he was just trying to get out of redeploying or trying to get out of service, or that he just couldn't hack it - when, in reality, he was sick. He had suffered injury in combat and he had also suffered from depression and let it go untreated for years. And because of that, he's dead today."
AP reports that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, also acknowledged the problem posed by the sigma associated with seeking help for mental problems in the military. In a memo to the Pentagon's top officials, he called suicide "one of the most complex and urgent problems" facing the Defense Department. He said: "We must continue to fight to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues." He added that commanders "cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services."
But some top Army officials have taken a harsh view of suicides. Major Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division wrote in his Army blog in January: "I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act... 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."
Although he retracted the statement after it drew criticism, he did not apologize. The Army's official reaction was that Pittard's statement was "clearly wrong," AP reports. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he disagrees with Pittard's views in "the strongest possible terms."
The military is taking steps to combat the problem, AP reports. Military services have set up confidential telephone hotlines, placed more mental health specialists in the battle field and increased training in stress management. The military is also investing more in research on mental health issues.
As part of efforts to combat the stigma associated with seeking mental health care in the military, the Navy published a list of "truths" about suicide. The publication said: "Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane. They might be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing."