Many Servicemembers Who Commit Suicide Have Never Seen Battle

Jonathan Woodson, MD

WASHINGTON — When servicemembers commit suicide, a common misperception is that the extreme act is a response to traumatic battlefield experiences.

In reality, many, if not most, military personnel who kill themselves have never been deployed, according to recent testimony before the House Armed Services’ Military Personnel Subcommittee.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, Air Force deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, said 68% of those individuals in the Air Force who have committed suicide have not deployed. The Marine Corps reported that in 2008 and 2009 during the peak years of suicide, fewer than 20% had ever seen combat.

Rear Adm. Anthony Kurta, U.S. Navy Director of Military Personnel, Plans and Policy, said that the Navy has not seen a causal relationship between deployments and suicide rate. On the other hand, he said, suicide rates often spike historically after periods of a drawdown of Navy personnel.

“We have seen that three times over the past 20 years, so it makes us remain ever vigilant as we go into a period of potential end strength reductions,” he said.

That trend existed in the Army in previous years, with soldiers who had no deployment or one deployment at greater risk for suicide, according to Lt. Gen Thomas Bostick, Army deputy chief of staff. This year, however, suicides among those who have gone on multiple deployments are starting to increase. “We don’t know why that is happening, but we are looking at it very closely,” he said.

Overall, rates of suicide have risen steadily over the last decade in the military, and those rates may even now surpass those in the civilian sector, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson, MD told a House subcommittee.

“The [DoD] has invested tremendous resources to better understand how to identify those at risk for suicide, treat the at-risk individuals and prevent suicide,” Woodson testified. “We continue to seek the best minds from both within our ranks, from academia, other federal health partners, and the private sector to further our understanding of this complex set of issues.”

Woodson, along with the representatives from the services, gave the subcommittee an update on suicide statistics in the military:

  • Army: In 2010, there were 155 active-duty suicide deaths, with 300 across the total Army. To date in 2011 that number appears to be leveling off, according to Bostick. He said that, as of June 30, there were 76 active-duty suicide deaths. For the same period last year there were 79.
  • Marines: During 2010, 37 Marines died by suicide, down from 52 in 2009. Thus far this year, through July 31, 21 Marines have died by suicide.
  • Air Force: There had been 56 Total Force Airmen and civilian suicides as of the September hearing. This is slightly lower than the 63 Air Force suicides for the same period last year.
  • Navy: This is the only branch of service  reporting an increasing trend in suicides. There were 46 active-duty and six Selected Reserve Sailor (SELRES) suicides in 2009 and 39 active-duty and four SELRES deaths in 2010. Already in 2011 there have been 36 active-duty and four SELRES Sailors lost to suicide, the Navy reported.
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  1. Cindy Kane says:

    I don’t believe there is a screening process in place to detect mental illness. I have personal, documented proof that the most recent suicide in Holloman was the direct result of the airman’s mental illness that was diagnosed in her adolescence. How did she get into the military with that background? It seems to me that the military has become a “dumping ground” for young adults whose mental health is questionable.

  2. Chris says:

    Be careful with your blanket statements based on assumptions and conjecture. To join the military, there is a thorough medical screen with a mental health screen that can include a full pysch screen if prescribed by the reviewing physician. This screen is subjective and leans towards disqualification rather than passing. The Doctor has full discretion to disqualify candidates without regard for recruiters and their goals. It is actually a frustrating part of the recruiting process for recruiters.

    The rates for suicide in the Military are equal to or slightly less that of the general US population for the same age group. So a dumping ground it isn’t. As a matter of fact it is actually very difficult to join the military with only 1 in 6 U.S. citizens of military age being qualified to join. The biggest disqualifier is education and intelligence. The second is health and physical fitness.

    The most frequently cited stressors were failed relationships and administrative or legal issues within the last 90 days, including civil legal procedures, non-judicial punishment, medical evaluation board proceedings, and “under investigation” for unspecified reasons.

    These are obviously not unique to the military. The increase in the rate of suicide is a US cultural problem. Not just a military problem. If you compare the amount of work induced stress the average Service Member undergoes versus the civilian, it is AMAZING that the services are keeping rate as low as they are. But we can and should do more.

    Media attention and headlines doesn’t equal comparative analysis or real research.

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