Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom on why suicide rates were lower in the military than the population at large was that the military culture, along with a steady paycheck and health care, made it less likely troops would contemplate harming themselves. But not anymore. Suicide rates for active military have risen steadily in the last 10 years to match the general public at above 18 per 100,000 troops. The vexing trend deserves the full attention of the Pentagon.
At first blush it would seem logical to conclude that the rise in military suicides could be attributed to the stresses of more than 10 years of war fought on two fronts, multiple deployments straining relationships back home, the deadly residual effects of repeated concussions and growing rates of posttraumatic stress disorder. Surely those factors have contributed. But they aren't the only culprits. About half of the approximately 2,700 service members who have taken their lives since 2001 were never deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 80 percent of military suicides never saw combat.
Last year, 350 service members took their lives, a record number since the military started tracking suicides in 2001 and more than the number who died in Afghanistan. The figure may be much higher. The military's suicide statistics do not include National Guard and reservists who may have taken their lives while not on active duty. In 2011, when the military saw 301 suicides, there were also at least 915 known unsuccessful suicide attempts.
In attempting to address the growing crisis, the Defense Department has created nearly 900 suicide prevention programs. But still, the tide has not ebbed. With this latest unfortunate milestone, its efforts to understand why more troops are contemplating suicide and how to help them should only intensify, focusing on therapies and services that have a direct impact and discarding those that are superfluous.
The U.S. military does a superb job training its men and women in uniform to become warriors. Now it needs to also help them learn to live their lives in peace.