Any suicide by an American soldier is shocking. But four in one week at one base, as occurred this week at Fort Hood in central Texas, is a tragedy beyond description. The military is going to have to move faster to better address the mental health of soldiers who have given so much to serve their country.
Fort Hood's cluster of suicides is not a fluke. The base has had 14 so far this year, tying a 2008 record. Six more deaths are believed to have been people taking their own lives, but those have yet to be confirmed. At any given time, Fort Hood, the largest base in the United States, has 46,000 to 50,000 active officers and soldiers. Troops flow through it on their way to deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and over the last nine years many have been sent again and again into combat zones. Meanwhile, Fort Hood's suicide rate is about four times the national average.
But Fort Hood is not alone in its grim statistics. During the last fiscal year, the Army's suicide rate for the first time was higher than that of the civilian population, with 160 deaths. Our nation's all-volunteer military is tired and stressed. Too much of the responsibility for battle is placed on too few shoulders. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said as much Wednesday in a speech at Duke University, pointing out that our force of 2.4 million active and reserve duty volunteers represents less than 1 percent of the population — the smallest proportion ever.
Gates wasn't calling for a return to the draft, but he is worried that war becomes remote when its pain and sacrifice are not broadly felt. The high suicide rate may be but one symptom of this disproportionate burden. Other causes are equally likely, particularly loosened enlistment standards that have brought recruits with more behavioral problems into military service. Sixty percent of Army suicides involve first-term soldiers.
The military is going to have to do a better job addressing the mental health issues within its ranks. In 2008, the Army launched a comprehensive effort to understand and mitigate suicides. More holistic suicide prevention programs have been established. But critics say the treatment soldiers are getting is too focused on medicating them and getting them back to duty. There is not enough emphasis on the counseling they need. And the stigma attached to seeking help is still acute. Attitudes need to change from leadership on down.
Four suicides in one week on one base says it all.