WASHINGTON — Thirty-two soldiers in the U.S. Army killed themselves in July, the highest number of suicides reported by the Army since it began releasing monthly suicide data two years ago.
The record high number comes despite a major push to prevent suicides in recent years, and the Army’s vice chief of staff called the July data “discouraging.”
“We absolutely recognize there is much work to be done,” Gen. Peter Chiarelli said in a statement.
But Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a veteran of World War II, said he sees the figures as relatively low.
“The suicide rate has gone up,” Inouye told Civil Beat. “But as one who has followed the activities of the military much more closely than most people, I am truly pleased that it is not higher.”
Even with the record number of suicides in July, year-to-date data is similar to what the Army recorded in 2010. The Army reported 303 confirmed and suspected suicides last year. Other branches of the military do not release monthly data, but have reported annual suicide rates comparable to that of the Army.
Historically, the Army suicide rate has been significantly lower than the rate of suicides among a comparable population of civilians, according to an August 2010 study by the Army.
About five years ago, the Army suicide rate began to go up. In 2008, it surpassed the national suicide rate for a comparable civilian population. But the demographic characteristics of service members who take their own lives mirror the profiles of their civilian counterparts, according to a January 2010 study by the Rand Center for Military Health Policy Research.
Rand found that in both military and civilian populations, more men committed suicide than women. In both populations, non-hispanic white soldiers and Native American soldiers killed themselves at double the rate of ethnic minorities.
Inouye, who earned the Medal of Honor for his Army service, says that soldiers are navigating a more complex and mentally taxing kind of military service than he did. While technological innovations have enabled deployed soldiers to feel closer to home than ever, Inouye says such regular communication is stressful for both the troops and their families.
“In my time, I had a very civilized, easy war,” said Inouye, who lost his right arm during a firefight with German soldiers. “I called my mother before I left Hawaii, and the next time I used the telephone to communicate was three years later when I was evacuated from Europe to be hospitalized. That’s when I called to say, ‘I’m OK.’ But in between there were no telephone calls. Communication was by letters. All letters were censored. So what we could communicate, for the most part, was good news, not bad news. I could not put in my letters that, ‘Sadly, in our battle last evening, so-and-so died.’ We were not supposed to talk about battles and death.”
While regular communication can help soldiers remain a part of their families day-to-day lives, it can also increase stress on both sides. Soldiers may be distracted by problems at home, while already-worried families’ fears can be compounded by real-time reporting from war zones.
“Imagine if you called your husband in Afghanistan and (then) you were watching one of the networks that evening, and saw your husband’s unit in combat,” Inouye said. “You’d begin to worry. And you’d begin to worry much more if he hasn’t called for three or four days. Stress disorder is no longer just men or women in the service. Now it’s affecting families, wives and children.”
Sen. Daniel Akaka also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He and Inouye, along with New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, are the three remaining veterans of that war in the U.S. Senate. Akaka said that today’s United States service members, all of whom volunteer to join the military, are more isolated from the rest of society than they were during his time.
“In World War II, there were 16 million males that were drafted,” Akaka told Civil Beat. “And, so, we were all part of that.”
Asked about suicide, Akaka also pointed out that the G.I. Bill paid for the college education of millions of veterans like him. It was an opportunity that helped restore his and other soldiers’ mental health after a traumatizing war, he said.
“When you look back at World War II, you don’t hear people talking about PTSD. They talk about shell shock,” Akaka said. “I would say that we had the same symptoms as the ones have now, except that we then went to college. Eight million of the 16 took the G.I. bill. For me, that changed this country. We all went to college and we went back across the country to our communities, and we became leaders in the communities because of our education.”
Today, a next-generation version of the G.I. Bill covers some of the costs of college for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. In examining the population of new veterans, Inouye points out that many of them would have died of their injuries in the war that he fought.
“Let’s put it this way,” Inouye said. “In my regiment, the casualty rate was one of the highest in Europe. And yet not a single person survived a double amputation. Today, double amputees and triple amputees are common. Not one of the men in my regiment survived with a brain injury. The living dead. And all of these terrible accidents, faces blown off. They didn’t make it.”
Inouye said it took nine hours for him to be evacuated to the hospital from the site of his injury.
“Today it takes less than an hour,” Inouye said. “So the survival rate obviously is higher, and that causes problems. You are madly in love with your husband and he gets banged up and he comes home, and he’s dead to the world. You can’t talk to him because he’s got a brain injury. How is life for you? You might consider suicide.”
A focus on the family is at the root of discussions about military suicide among members of the House Armed Services Committee. Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa serves on the committee, and said suicide prevention is a “major priority.”
“There’s a recognition of the role of the family,” Hanabusa said. “I think everybody paid it lip service in the past but now it’s becoming more and more evident that the family is what enables the solider to do what the soldier has to do. The focus has got to be on how to strengthen that family.”
One way to do that is to change deployment cycles, and create longer periods of time at home for soldiers who have to complete multiple tours of duty in dangerous areas, she said.
“One of the issues that the military has come to understand is that it cannot send forces to the front line for the periods that they have, so they’ve developed a concept called dwell time,” Hanabusa said. “The ideal situation is to work to dwell time, which is two years at home and one year away. They’re hoping that that stabilizes not only the individual but the family as well.”
In recent years, Army officials have redoubled suicide prevention. Soldiers are required to undergo resilience training, and are instructed to follow simple steps to look out for fellow soldiers. An education campaign aimed at removing the stigma of mental health problems includes slogans like “have the courage to help a buddy,” and “I will never quit on life.”
The Army also commissioned a five-year $50 million study about suicide within the service by the National Institute of Mental Health. The results are expected in 2014.
Last month, President Barack Obama announced the White House would lift a ban on sending letters of condolence to the families of soldiers who commit suicide.
“This issue is emotional, painful, and complicated, but these Americans served our nation bravely,” Obama said in a statement. “They didn’t die because they were weak.”
As the federal government works to change its approach to caring for soldiers, Inouye points out that the wars that American soldiers are fighting are evolving, too.
“War is no longer a man shooting a man,” Inouye said. “It impacts upon all kinds of people. That’s why I voted against going to Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of people who wave flags haven’t tasted blood from the battlefield. When you do that, blood tastes a little different.”
Are you thinking about hurting yourself, or worried that someone else might be considering suicide?