The National Tragedy of Military and Veterans Suicides (Update)

UPDATE:

Today, the Army released suicide data for the month of July and the numbers are not getting better.

The specific numbers of potential and confirmed suicides for both active-duty military and among reserve components can be viewed here.

As of the end of July the total number of confirmed suicides for Army active-duty and reserve component soldiers for 2012 rose rapidly to 120.

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, vice chief of staff of the Army, said:

Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army. And, it’s an enemy that’s killing not just soldiers, but tens of thousands of Americans every year. That said, I do believe suicide is preventable. To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills. As we prepare for Suicide Prevention Month in September we also recognize that we must continue to address the stigma associated with behavioral health. Ultimately, we want the mindset across our force and society at large to be that behavioral health is a routine part of what we do and who we are as we strive to maintain our own physical and mental wellness.

Original Post:

A few weeks ago, a reader asked our TMV editors for an article on military and veterans suicides.

I was asked to try my hand at it.

While I have strong opinions on and great empathy about this issue and I can provide some eye-opening statistics, I am not an expert. Thus, for the important aspects of this complex issue — the causes, the effects and what is and can be done about it — I am obliged to rely on those who have studied this tragic phenomenon and those who are in positions to try to do something about it.

In this case, I am relying extensively on TIME Magazine reporters Mark Thompson and Nancy Gibbs who wrote the superb July 23, TIME Magazine cover article, “One a Day — Every day, one U.S. soldier commits suicide. Why the military can’t defeat its most insidious enemy.”

First, the statistics.

As of last month just in the Marine Corps and just since the beginning of the year, 24 Marines had committed suicide and there were another 100 reported suicide attempts among these brave men and women.

That is almost two Marines lost to suicide every month.

The statistics for the Army are even grimmer. For 2012 — as of June — there have been 89 “potential” active-duty suicides: 48 have been confirmed as suicides and 41 remain under investigation. For 2011, the Army reports 165 confirmed suicides.

When one includes not on active-duty (Army National Guard and Reserve) suicides the 2012 figure goes up to 84 confirmed suicides. That is 14 confirmed Army suicides every month during the first six months of 2012.

In a briefing with reporters on June 8, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby said that military suicides have risen 18 percent, from 130 in the period from Jan. 1 to June 3, 2011, to 154 in the same period this year. That is more than 26 every month this year — almost one every day!

Finally, suicides among veterans are alarmingly high: The Department of Veterans Affairs puts them as high as 18 every day.

The numbers to-date are bad enough. However, TIME Magazine, in its comprehensive July 23 article, projects the total military suicides in 2012 to climb to 366 — that is one suicide every day of the year!

A final measure of the suicide tragedy, one that some may say compares bad to worse: Since the start of the war in Afghanistan more of our troops have died by suicide than have died fighting there: 2,676 and 1,950, respectively, as of June 10.

No wonder Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, in an internal memo written in June, called the issue of military suicides “one of the most complex and urgent problems” facing the Department of Defense.

But who are these men and women?

TIME Magazine has a wealth of data.

For example, 95% are male, 95% are enlisted, 80% are white and 47% are under 25.

Also, 38% had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, 11% had combat history and 6% witnessed killing in combat.

But the numbers and the statistics do not come even close to painting the human tragedy that suicides are and the pain and grief experienced by the survivors.

There are numerous stories — especially in military publications — that attempt to give us an idea of such.

One such story in the “The Official Blog of the United Stated Marine Corps” describes the horror, grief and pain of Barbara Christianson, as she comes home one day and finds out that Marine Cpl. Gavin Kopponen, her only son who had returned from Afghanistan a few months earlier, was dead — “and not from a bullet or an improvised explosive device.”

Christianson screamed, ‘No!’ and dropped to her knees.

Although Cpl. Gavin Kopponen had returned from Afghanistan months ago and was only months away from completing his time in the Marine Corps, he had given his life battling the enemies within.

“My world crumbled that day,” Christianson said. “And it’s still not back together. He was my only son. He meant the world to me. I didn’t know what went wrong. We made it through Afghanistan. Why now? What happened?”

When her son came home from his deployment with 2nd Marine Division at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Christianson knew she had lost her little boy and that her son was troubled.

The things Kopponen had done and seen in Afghanistan had changed him – but he refused to talk about it.

“Gavin was tough and never showed his pain to anyone,” Christianson said. “He said he would take the shit he saw in Afghanistan with him to his grave – and he did.”

[::]

“I couldn’t save my son,” Christianson said. “But I know what it feels like to have lost him. I don’t want any mother to ever feel that pain, so if I can save someone’s life, then I would do it in a heartbeat. If I had had a clue that Gavin was going to take his life, I would have driven all night to stop it. I would have done anything to prevent his death … anything.”

As Kopponen’s would-have-been 26th birthday on Aug. 9 nears, Christianson, the rest of Kopponen’s family, and his girlfriend are left with doubts and questions, as well as haunting guilt that they somehow could have prevented the death of this young Marine.

Sadly, there are hundreds of stories like this one (TIME follows two officers who committed suicide), thousands of doubts and questions and plenty of guilt to go around.

What is frustrating is that there are no easy answers to the questions. Questions such as what exactly makes these soldiers susceptible to take such a drastic action, what triggers it and, most important, how can we prevent or at least reduce the number of these suicides.

TIME:

The specific triggers for suicide are unique to each service member. The stresses layered on by war–the frequent deployments, the often brutal choices, the loss of comrades, the family separation–play a role. So do battle injuries, especially traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And the constant presence of pain and death can lessen one’s fear of them.

But combat trauma alone can’t account for the trend. Nearly a third of the suicides from 2005 to 2010 were among troops who had never deployed; 43% had deployed only once. Only 8.5% had deployed three or four times. Enlisted service members are more likely to kill themselves than officers, and 18-to-24-year-olds more likely than older troops. Two-thirds do it by gunshot; 1 in 5 hangs himself. And it’s almost always him: nearly 95% of cases are male. A majority are married.

The Pentagon and the Veterans Administration are painfully aware of the problem — the crisis — and have established a Defense Suicide Prevention Office, a Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide and numerous organizations, programs, hotlines and counseling services across all military services and the Veterans Administration.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, said recently, “We’ve been hard at [combating suicide] for at least the last seven years. We have not spared any effort, but nor have we turned the trend line…The issue of suicide, and all of the other tragic mental health issues that we have experienced over the last 10 years of war, require us to continue to seek to learn.”

According to TIME, the Pentagon allocates about $2 billion — nearly 4% of its $53 billion annual medical bill — to mental health.

Some, including recently retired general Peter Chiarelli, feel that it is not enough money and that not enough is being done.

But, while the Army admitted in January that there is no way to tell way how well its suicide-prevention programs were working, it estimated that “without such interventions, the number of suicides could have been four times as high.”

TIME also reports that, since 2009, the Pentagon’s ranks of mental-health professionals have grown by 35%, nearing 10,000, but that, because of a national shortage of such personnel, the Army has only 80% of the psychiatrists and 88% of the social workers and behavioral-health nurses recommended by the VA.

According to TIME, “No program, outreach or initiative has worked against the surge in Army suicides, and no one knows why nothing works.”

The bottom line according to TIME:

The U.S. military seldom meets an enemy it cannot target, cannot crush, cannot put a fence around or drive a tank across. But it has not been able to defeat or contain the epidemic of suicides among its troops, even as the wars wind down and the evidence mounts that the problem has become dire. While veterans account for about 10% of all U.S. adults, they account for 20% of U.S. suicides. Well trained, highly disciplined, bonded to their comrades, soldiers used to be less likely than civilians to kill themselves–but not anymore.

Finally, Mrs. Christianson:

They say his suffering is over and I believe it is. But my suffering began with the two Marines walking up my driveway. Every day is a struggle for me. Life doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. I don’t enjoy listening to the birds or seeing the sunrise. My sun set on Jan. 24 and it will never rise again. I implore Marines to please get help. Call someone: a friend, a neighbor, or anyone and everyone. Don’t give up! There are people who care about you and love you. When you give up, you don’t just take your own life, but you take theirs as well.

The Marine Corps and all military Services have suicide prevention programs. Here is the Marine Corps’ Marine and Family Programs Suicide Prevention Program.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist