Operation Ranger Up

Ranger Up Talks Suicide: The Facts

By
Updated: September 10, 2013
Suicide 500x400

 

By Greg Drobny, aka “Mr. Twisted.”

 

One of the most difficult things to do when addressing the topic of suicides in the military and Veteran community is to speak about it objectively. Most of us know someone who took their own life and, as a result, remaining impartial to the issue and assessing the facts is harder than finding French military victories in history.

Yet we must lay out the raw data for all to see on this troubling topic so that we are not caught up solely in a series of anecdotes. Though personal accounts do far more to compel us emotionally, they are often misleading when trying to understand the bigger picture.

Some of what you will read in this Rhino Den series will be very personal in nature—interviews with families of suicide victims, personal stories, and observations from those closest to this problem. But as we bring this to you, it is imperative that we address the hard facts, as well—partly in order to lay the groundwork for where we are now, but also so that we may dispel many of the myths that have surrounded this topic.

The modern media and those who pay credence to it are inclined to quickly associate suicide with post-traumatic stress or extreme battlefield stress of some type. The numbers, though, do not back that up and in fact tell a much more complex story. The most recent data released from the Pentagon, for the years 2008-2011, show that 52% of military suicides are by those who have never deployed to a combat zone[1]. Another 34% are those who deployed but in a non-combat role—meaning that 14% of those who took their own lives were combat veterans.

Those numbers immediately bring us to one of the main problems with the way our government addresses the data on suicides. Most reports on suicides in the military deal only with those currently serving—not recently-separated Veterans. This is understandable to a degree, but to put it in perspective, consider the following: in 2012 there were 352 Active Duty suicides compared to 313 service members killed in action in Afghanistan. However, there were also 172 members of the Inactive Reserve and National Guard that took their own lives, and according the Veterans Administration, since 2010, an average of 22 Veterans per day have committed suicide.[2] In other words, the data gathered by the Pentagon is only a piece of the puzzle.

These are staggering numbers, to be sure. Combining the totals of those on Active Duty with those on Inactive status as well as Veterans puts the suicides in 2012 alone somewhere around 8,000—a number that should give anyone pause for serious concern.

And what’s more, these numbers have steadily risen.

Between 1990 and 2003, the United States Army’s suicide rate held steady at approximately 10 per 100,000—a number that was roughly half of the civilian population’s numbers[3], and numbers that had varied only by a small degree for the previous 50 years, even at the height of World War II. By 2011, that number had increased to 23 per 100,000[4] and, as the numbers above suggest, has continued to rise since then, as well.

Are we seeing numbers suggesting—or even verifying—that the current, younger generation of warfighters is less mentally capable of handling the tasks set before them? Do the young people of today have a more difficult time dealing with the stress induced by military life?

Though it is tempting to suggest that very thing, it would also be disingenuous to the facts for a number of reasons; the first of which makes things even muddier than they already seem to be.

In the Veterans Administration’s Suicide Data Report for 2012, researchers concluded that the age group with the highest rates of suicide were males above the age of 50.[5] But their finding that 69% of all Veteran suicides being by those 50 and older is extrapolated from data taken from only 21 states—not the whole country. How accurate that information is at representing all states combined is, at least at this time, unknown. The remaining 29 states in question do not have reliable methods of tracking Veterans and suicide on death reports.[6]

If you thought that makes things a little more complicated, consider what one of the more notable news sources in America recently stated. According to a report in the Washington Post, the United States Army didn’t even begin keeping accurate records on suicides until 1980[7]. Does that mean the data on soldiers in World War II is erroneous?

According to LTC Dave Grossman, author of the famed On Killing, over half a million men were removed from the battlefield during WWII due to psychiatric trauma[8]. While we have seen that there is not necessarily a direct correlation between combat stress and suicides, this fact—combined with the astronomically high rate of suicides among Veterans over the age of 50—leads us to believe that this is not simply a matter of saying a specific generation of warfighters is less capable than others when it comes to serving their country.

The information also suggests that The Washington Post’s statement about the Army not keeping records on suicide is almost completely inaccurate. According to the US Army’s Medical Department, suicide was the leading cause of death among military personnel in the decade following World War I[9] and that mental disorders were the leading cause of discharge for service members during this period.[10] Interestingly, the period of high suicide rates between the years of 1920 to 1930 followed a time of extremely low suicide rates. The lowest numbers in the 40 years between the outset of the 20th century and the beginning of World War II were during World War I[11]; a fact that directly contradicts the data of the 21st century. This is somewhat understandable, given the brevity of involvement America had in WWI compared to the current conflict, but still suggests that there is a substantial amount of information yet to be studied on this subject.

One of the biggest struggles we face in all of this is the woefully inadequate method that government bureaucracies have used to catalog the data. The Veterans Administration, with the above-mentioned study, is a perfect example. Stating that 69% of Veteran suicides are by those 50 and older is taking the Veterans of three major conflicts—World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—and lumping them all into one category. This does a great disservice to the research needed for this subject.

Another issue is the seeming lack of serious study. For example, in a 1994 study by Alan Fontana and Robert Rosenheck, it was determined that both Korea and Vietnam Veterans were “more suicidal than World War II” Veterans and that Vietnam Veterans “felt more guilty” than Veterans from either of the two previous wars. However, despite the academic nature of the study, the numbers were terribly skewed by using a total of 5,138 war zone veterans—only 320 of which were from World War II and 199 of which were from the Korean War.[12]

In other words, it is exceedingly difficult to ascertain anything of demonstrable value from studies which neglect to place some rather fundamental parameters on their research. It may be impossible to tell, in all honesty, what the true comparative data is between WWII, Korea, Vietnam, OIF, and OEF Veterans if studies are conducted in this manner.

So, this poses the million dollar question: What, if anything, can we know for certain?

One of the primary takeaways from all this data is that both the studies done on the subject of suicide and the reporting of those studies are distressingly insufficient. For instance, there seems to be very little research done on the topic of how deployment duration relates to suicides.

Consider that the US Army has a higher suicide rate than does the US Marine Corps (32 per 100k for the former versus 24 per 100k for the latter). To further that data, the United Kingdom’s Army has a suicide rate that is well below that of their civilian population at 12 per 100k.[13] How much are these numbers affected by number of days or months being deployed? Why would the United States Army have by far the highest rate of suicides when compared not only to other branches, but the militaries of other countries, as well?  Sadly, the research on this particular question is greatly lacking.

Also missing from what we know is a cohesive, thorough study on transition periods from Active Duty to Veteran status and what separation time does to the numbers of those who take their own lives. Part of this is due to the unfortunate fact that, as mentioned above, many states do not keep accurate records of Veteran status and therefore have a difficult time providing the correct information. Yet the reality is that, as it seems, there are not a lot of people out there researching this topic. Ask any Psych major at a major university and they are likely to tell you that the subject of military and Veteran suicides is rarely—if ever—brought up.

This is not to say that the only thing we know is what we don’t know. Though that is the case in many regards, there are some truly important learning points in all of this.

Number one, we know that the suicide rates among American military and Veterans has steadily risen over the last ten years and shows no signs of slowing down. Regardless of reasons why this is so, it is important to keep that in mind. It is not a myth that this is a problem; nor are the numbers being inflated. If anything, as attested to by this research, they are being underreported.

Number two, the numbers of Veterans from previous wars who have taken their own lives has risen right along with those from the current conflict. This is not an issue for a single generation, but rather one that needs to be addressed by and for the whole Veteran community.

And finally, we know that within the Veteran community lays the ability to address this issue more thoroughly than it has been by any news source or organization. As you will see from this series, we take this topic quite seriously, and our hope is that you will do the same.

So, as you read the next installments, keep in mind that your voice is crucial as we push forward. As stated at the beginning, it is difficult to remain objective on this subject. I have tried to do so for the sake of laying a foundation of facts from which to draw upon. I ask that you keep these numbers in mind as you read of this matter in mainstream media sources and in discussing it in your own circles.

 



[6] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12] Fontana, Alan; Rosenheck, Robert. “Traumatic war stressors and psychiatric symptoms among World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War Veterans.” http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/docview/614314299/13ECDB1E7895B83FDB2/1?accountid=8289

Comments

comments

9 Comments

  1. Vega

    September 10, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Thank you gents for keeping the information and information out there. To important not to keep it real and to provide assistance and help to those that need it the most.

  2. Marie

    September 10, 2013 at 10:00 am

    This is not surprising. When spiritual values vanish, suicides rise. Marine Corps suicide rates are less because this Corps was founded by men/soldiers whose character was itself rooted into indestructible spiritual legacy. It is not objective not to admit that narcissism is a fundamental human factor. Like babies are when they want all attention. That is how I see it spiritually. From above and that sounds weird today. I love Marines for all they represent. The US Corps is less prestigious. Many soldiers feel today abandoned and betrayed by the ones who “used” them as war machines. The word I is “expendable”. A word that infuriates me 100%. GI’s won a terrible war and they are still admired and respected. Todays soldiers feel lost and confused fighting in wars where the good guys and the bad are not clearly defined. Bad ones can be at home, in DC, inside the army. I said long ago it is the Balkanization factor. The US Army was deliberately divided by those who wish it collapse. I am a civilian feeling absolute empathy with the US soldiers specifically. My own experience converges at the point where those soldiers life ends. The point where they awareness becomes unsustainable trying to find all the reasons to keep alive after all they endured in cultures where the value of life is in the hands of the brutal ones.
    To express vulnerable emotions to the family in the most powerful military nation ever is Hell. It is the Awareness Hell walking falling standing up falling rising collapsing suffering with no relief. Self doubt, self denigration, loss of esteem, loss of Trust in the system, in the Nation leaders, in the Army. That is what Ending Times mean. Loss of Trust in oneself and others. Smelling the Machine is rotten and all instincts of survival clashing with all destructive instincs. The old brain fighting the modern cortex.

    There is so much I would say to those kids for I feel a mother to them like a woman should feel always. We, civilians must Protect the ones who Protect us. We must keep telling each soldier they are so much needed and so Unique.
    Why to be surprised to see intelligent young beings realizing how difficult it is to Kill. Or see buddies be killed. Suicide is giving up life of course to escape suffering but there is Hope in the fact that any suicidal soldier might have decided that killing is no longer possible. It is a psychological immense mutation for many soldiers who aspire to protect their own but feel sickened to obey any order coming from nowhere “above” and telling them to kill civilians included if need be.
    So I hope a suicidal soldier realizes he/she is going through the dissolving process of terribly complex human mutations. They see nothing in the dark but surely there is a Light; The Light to know their training and admirable skills/discipline can SAVE RESCUE PROTECT children, old people, wounded … They are indispensable and I wish I saw them around me here in Europe. Instead seeing cameras with soldiers loosing contact with civilians behind remote desks.
    God bless each soldier each second of the day for all Eternity and get them back to where they belong : The People United in God.

  3. Chris Hernandez

    September 10, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Thank you for laying out the complexity of this issue. The public seems to equate “being a combat vet” with “being suicidal”, as if it’s a 1+1=2 math problem. The veteran suicide issue is far more complicated and nuanced than the media or nonveterans believe. I appreciate your well-written and considered essay.

    Now, having said that…

    In my opinion there was no reason to insult the French military at the beginning of the essay. Not even in jest. French troops fought at our side for years in Afghanistan and lost almost 90 men killed. I served shoulder to shoulder with French Mountain Troops and Marines, and can tell you from personal experience that they’re brave, dedicated and aggressive. Their small military has served honorably and sacrificed willingly, despite the fact that their civilian population is far less supportive than ours. Many of their combat veterans are suffering from the same problems some of ours are. They don’t deserve the insult, no matter how much of a supposed “joke” it is.

    Chris Hernandez

    • Rejenia Anderson (HaoleWahine)

      September 10, 2013 at 1:46 pm

      Chris, thank you for your defense for French military. By a very unusual route, I was asked to supply a bit personal support for some Legionnaires by a US Army friend who served with them and noticed they, as you said, had no civilian support (mail or packages). That led to even more paths for US and regular French troop support. French support became more letter/email communication supposedly so they could practice writing in English, as there was no APO, so pkg s became expensive (if I did not have a US contact who could pass off pkg s). I appreciate your kind words. Their words could have been from some young person anywhere in America, and losing them in battle just as painful.

    • Mr. Twisted

      September 10, 2013 at 2:14 pm

      Chris,

      I appreciate the comment and critique.

      Please understand, this is a heavy topic (as we all know), and the approach I took was rather dry and not very compelling from an emotional standpoint, given the nature of the article. Because of this, I tried to throw in a little humor — humor that would appeal to our audience — to lighten the mood a bit and make it not quite so dry.

      Unfortunately, nearly any kind of humor insults someone. Poking fun at one another will always result in someone taking offense.

      That, however, does not mean in any way, shape, or form that those of us here do not have the utmost respect for brothers and sisters in arms in different places around the globe. Point of fact, if the numbers were there and relevant, I would love to have included the French in this study, as well. Learning about how other cultures address this same problem is, after all, beneficial to all of us.

  4. leftoftheboom

    September 10, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I think that another thing to recognize is that we have the ability to track and record much better information than in previous years. We have no real way on knowing, as the article points out, the difference between a higher suicide rate and a higher reporting of suicides.

    Generalization only adds to the problem because it is used by pundits and the uninformed to make sound bites that do not do anything but cause either confusion and do more damage. I am unfortunately as guilty of that as anyone else because it is simply not an easy topic and when you want to expound in one area, you can overlap into another without trying too.

    Better record keeping would be nice. We might then be able to spot a pattern but the absolute first thing we have to address is the stigma associated with seeking care. Part of that stigma is created, IMO, by the perception of fear. Not fear of the individual but fear for one’s self. We do not want to be the one that needs care so we instinctively tune out or become sarcastic in order to hide our own fear of the subject. It is like talking about it honestly would give us bad luck.

    The Army assaults personnel with slides and videos and they still miss the issue. A Soldier must feel that they can take any issue to the chain and get help. And the leaders need to be ready with empathy to listen to the problem. And that is very difficult when the machine is trying to make you emotionless so that you can take the next hill or face the next deployment without folding.

    There is a Fine line between Hardcore and Stupid, Not for the Weak or Fainthearted, Pain is weakness leaving the body, and Failure is not an option are all slogans of strength that push us further and remove our ability to empathize. Ranger School is about mental toughness as are most of the leadership schools in the military. They are designed to teach to us to fight through the emotion.

    We have to balance the need to be emotionally distant from the things our duty calls upon us to do, and emotionally responsive to those in our care that may be having a challenge with that balance.

    It is not easy.

  5. Sarge19d

    September 11, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Interestingly enough, the spike in Active Duty suicides also directly correlates to the use of the drug ‘Chantix’ (whose manufacturer is currently under class action lawsuit) in DoD’s anti-smoking witch hunt. Recent studies have shown that Chantix users have an astronomically higher suicide rate than non-users. Also noteworthy, Chantix is no longer being passed out like breath mintd

  6. NotBro

    September 11, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I’m interested to get some feedback in my perception regarding our institutional approach to this issue. I personally feel that soldiers are inundated with suicide training and classes that almost convince some that they are supposed to be suicidal at some point. My experience has been that the cases of suicide or those with suicidal ideations aren’t the multi deployment vet, but rather the fresh faced private that is just adjusting to the military. These soldiers are greeted with a barrage of advertisements that tell him that it is ok to feel suicidal, and he just needs to ask for help. That said, is it really normal to feel suicidal? Are we setting these young soldiers up for failure when we repeatedly tell them that soldiers are suicidal? I do not contest that there is an issue, but I do think that our blanket approach of telling everyone that it is ok has created a perception to some soldiers that they are supposed to feel that way.

  7. Tracey

    September 11, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    As the wife of a disabled Navy OIEF vet emotional support for our vets and active miltary would help tremendously…. I know the VA is trying more now than they ever have but it’s not enought especially for the Active duty personnel…. Thanks for getting the info out there….

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