WASHINGTON — Suicides are surging among America's troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation's decade of war.
The 146 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 148 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by the Associated Press.
The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago. The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year's upswing has caught some officials by surprise.
The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.
The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares with 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it's more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-11. This year's January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.
The numbers are rising among the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel despite years of effort to encourage troops to seek help with mental health problems — which many in the military see as a sign of weakness.
Jackie Garrick, head of a new Defense Suicide Prevention Office at the Pentagon, said Thursday the numbers are troubling.
"We are very concerned … 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 said.
The military services have set up confidential telephone hotlines, placed more mental health specialists on the battlefield, added training in stress management, invested more in research on mental health risk and taken other measures.
The renewed surge in suicides caught the attention of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Last month he sent an internal memo to the Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders calling suicide "one of the most complex and urgent problems" facing the Defense Department, according to a copy provided to the AP.