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More Soldiers Die From Suicide Than Fall in Combat

In 2012, 349 active-duty servicemembers took their own lives

For the third year in a row the rate of suicide by active-duty troops has continued to climb, hitting an all-time record of 349 service members, according to a recent report from the Department of Defense. That total, says the Atlantic Wire, “exceeds the 295 combat-related deaths recorded last year.”

U-T San Diego reports:

The uptick coincides with more than 11 years of sustained combat and growing numbers of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is estimated to affect as many as one in five who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD.

Yet a Pentagon report released this week indicates that less than half of military personnel who committed suicide in 2011 had deployed for those wars and only about 15 percent were involved in direct combat.

In addition to combat, a complex array of stressors is squeezing service members, with military downsizing and poor civilian job prospects playing a growing role, medical personnel and advocates said.

The pressures of a drawn-out war and a shrinking force, with the military hoping to downsize its numbers as it wraps up the war in Afghanistan, says the Associated Press, are listed as some of the stresses that may be driving servicemembers to take their own lives. That suicides have surpassed combat-related deaths, says RT, could also be attributable to the reductions in combat deaths brought on by an increasing reliance on drones and other battlefield robots.

Though the rate of suicide among service members is technically below the average for civilians of the same gender and age—17.5 per 100,000 people compared to 25 per 100,000 people, says the Atlantic Wire—suicide among veterans is dramatically higher. RT:

The suicide rate among veterans vastly exceeds that of active-duty troops. According to estimates last year by the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs, a US military veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes – totaling 18 veterans a day.

According to U-T San Diego:

Almost three-quarters of troops who commit suicide do not inform others they are thinking about harming themselves, according to the latest Department of Defense Suicide Event report. In light of that, the military trains troops to be vigilant for signs of suicidal tendencies among comrades….

“We know there is a very strong ethos in combat that you would never leave your buddy behind. You would do whatever you have to, to save their life while in combat. We need to have that same mentality in garrison and back home,” Johnston said. “What we really have found is these are typically not impulsive acts. There usually are warning signs.”

The military has enacted measures to help people with suicidal thoughts, including access to social workers, psychiatrists, and help lines. But some have proposed more direct measures to limit death-by-suicide. Stars and Stripes, a magazine for those in the armed services, says that there has been a recent push to restrict service member’s access to weapons when they’re off-duty in a bid to keep suicides down. This approach is modeled on a successful program in the Israeli Defense Forces, which took similar steps in 2006.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Killer Economy – Science Suspects Recession to Blame for 1,000 Suicides in England
Teens Predict Their Own Downward Spirals

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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