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The military suicide epidemic

Published: February 11, 2013 Updated: March 18, 2013 at 08:59 PM
Simply stated, it is a stunning and distressing statistic that should alarm all Americans: There were more suicides in the United States military in 2012 than there were military deaths caused by combat in Afghanistan. There were 295 combat deaths last year but 349 suicides.Even so, there is some modestly encouraging news. The overall percentage of suicides by veterans has declined, if only slightly, over the years. Researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs suggest this downward trend proves their efforts to reduce suicide may be having an effect. Yet the numbers are still alarming.The Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001, which is when the fighting in Afghanistan began, and the situation is now so grim that departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has labeled it an epidemic. He's not alone by any means."This is an epidemic that cannot be ignored," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., declared when the latest statistics were made public. "As our newest generation of service members and veterans face unprecedented challenges, today's news shows we must be doing more to ensure they are not slipping through the cracks."But what exactly should "doing more" look like? When most epidemics occur — for example, the recent flu scare that swept the United States — urgent measures are swiftly taken to address the problem. How should the government respond to this particularly disheartening epidemic? After all, this is not a typical health issue. But it is just as urgent.Last year Panetta announced a four-track suicide prevention plan that called for increased responsibility by military leaders, especially junior officers and NCOs; improved quality and access to health care; elevated mental fitness; and increased research into suicide prevention.It is too soon to judge its impacts, but as the numbers show, suicides continue."The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force," The Associated Press report noted.Military suicides began rising in 2006, and there were 310 in 2009 before they tapered off for two years. The data suggest the problem is worse among older veterans. Most veterans who commit suicide are older than age 50.The Army had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops last year at 182, but of course the Army is by far the largest branch among America's military services. Expressed as a percentage, however, the largest increase was in the Marine Corps. Its suicide numbers had dipped for the two previous years but rose 50 percent (to 48) last year, or just short of the worst year of 52 Marine suicides three years ago. There were 59 Air Force suicides, up 16 percent from the previous year, and 60 among Navy personnel, up 15 percent."Now that we're decreasing our troops and they're coming back home, that's when they're really in the danger zone, when they're transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves," warned Kim Ruocco, whose husband killed himself between Iraq deployments in 2005. She's in charge of the suicide prevention program for a group called Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. However, suicide prevention isn't easy, as Ruocco acknowledged."If you have a perfect storm of events on the day with somebody who has high risk factors, it's very difficult to be there every moment, fill every crack, and we just have to continue to be aware of what the risk factors are," she said. But that's easier said than done.Americans understand it is inevitable that lives will be lost in combat, and as sad as that is, it's at least a price they absolutely must be willing to pay, however reluctantly, if we are to preserve our country's freedom.But suicide? That's a different issue altogether, and the Pentagon must take every possible step to confront this dreadful epidemic. Our military men and women deserve no less.