TAMPA — The military's special forces in the last two years have suffered "the highest rate of suicides we've had" and 2014 is on pace to be even worse, the chief of U.S. special operation forces said Thursday.
"There is a lot of angst. There's a lot of pressure out there," Adm. William McRaven, chief of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a crowd at an intelligence symposium at the Tampa Convention Center. "My soldiers have been fighting now for 12, 13 years in hard combat, hard combat.
"Anybody that has spent any time in this war has been changed by it. It's that simple."
McRaven's comments come at a trying time for special forces which, like the rest of the military, have endured repeated deployments. But as troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, special forces are still in high demand with countries that want U.S. help training their forces and combating terrorism.
McRaven said in a 40-minute speech that his forces last week were in 84 nations.
McRaven provided no suicide numbers during his talk. And SOCom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, declined a request by the Tampa Bay Times to provide any figures.
Suicides across the military declined in 2013 with 296 cases among active-duty troops, the Military Times has reported. That is down nearly 16 percent from 351 in 2012.
The military suicide rate climbed from 10.3 per 100,000 in 2001 to 17.6 in 2011, though the Pentagon said that is still lower than the general population — 25 per 100,000 in 2010.
There are more than 59,000 special operations forces across the services.
In January, McRaven directed the formation of a suicide-prevention working group within SOCom to address some of the unique problems his troops face.
The initiative, and others like it, work at "preventing all other negative behaviors and choices associated with the pressures on the force," the command said in a written statement.
The biggest challenge in the military at large, but especially in special forces, is the gung ho, macho culture that discourages troops from self-reporting mental health problems, suicide-prevention experts say.
"The culture in that population is that they suck it up mentally," said Kim Ruocco, a social worker and national director of suicide education and outreach at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
"They are prideful, and they do not ask for help. They carry very heavy loads of physical and emotional pain, and they are trained to tolerate it," she said.
The sense of identity and purpose for special forces, heightened in war, can make for a tough transition to peace, Ruocco said.
Ruocco's husband, Maj. John Ruocco, flew an attack helicopter in Iraq and survived 75 combat missions. He killed himself in 2005 after returning home to San Diego.
"He felt getting help would change the way everybody viewed him," his wife said. "That they would no longer value him."
SOCom said it is working to eliminate the stigma that often comes with seeking help. "A cultural change, driven by leadership, is needed," SOCom said in a statement.
McRaven, speaking at a conference organized by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, said he joined the Navy in 1977 and saw how the nation failed in its treatment of Vietnam War veterans.
"We're not going to make that mistake this time around," he said. "We're going to put everything we can into making sure we're taking care of these kids and their families." That, McRaven said, was his top priority.
"It is about the readiness of my force," he said. "At the end of the day, we'll find the right weapon. … But I'll tell you, if we don't have a force that's resilient, that is healthy, that can do the job, none of that equipment is going to matter."
Times researchers John Martin and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.