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Ranger Up Talks Suicide: The Facts
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. 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. 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, 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 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. 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.
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. 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. 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 and that mental disorders were the leading cause of discharge for service members during this period. 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; 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.
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. 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.
 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