Last year, the suicide rate among veterans dropped for the first time in 12 years, a reversal of a trend that has led to veterans having a much higher suicide rate than the non-veteran population. This is great news, and hopefully, a sign that progress is being made.
The same cannot be said for the active-duty military, however, whose suicide rate rose during the same time period. Despite our wars in the Middle East ending or drawing down, the death by suicide rate continues to rise, indicating factors outside of warfare as the driver. From 2015 to 2020, the suicide rate among active duty service members has increased by 41%, and there are no signs of it stopping. At Fort Drum, New York in September, three soldiers died by suicide within 72 hours.
There have been many attempts by leaders in the Department of Defense to shift blame for these numbers, all towards places except where it is most deserved: the military’s own leadership, and a military culture that creates overwhelming stress, contributes to mental health issues, and then stigmatizes mental health treatment.
Since 9/11, an estimated 7,057 service members have died during military operations. In the same time period, an estimated 30,177 service members and veterans have died due to suicide, based on data from Brown University’s Costs of War project. Notably, most troops who die by suicide have never deployed.
The DoD’s 2020 annual suicide report, released last month, paints a picture that points to systemic issues. The overall active suicide rate from last year increased from 26 to about 29 per 100,000 personnel. Demographically, the suicide rate among men increased from 28 per 100,000 to 32 per 100,000, a statistic higher than males in the national population. For women, the suicide rate remained around 12 per 100,000 which is double (100%) the suicide rate of women in the national population.
It is important to note that the nation’s full 2020 suicide numbers have not been released, so these comparisons are to the 2019 national average. The gap between the suicide rate among actively serving personnel and the rest of society will no doubt increase; during the Covid 19 pandemic, the military suicide rate increased by 25% while the nation’s suicide rate dropped by six percent.
Recently, the argument from DoD officials has been that the suicide rate is partly created by the armed forces being overstretched by threats such as China even though our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been drawn down. They’ve been making that same argument since at least 2013, when the blame was put on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the suicide rate among those who had never deployed to war zones nearly tripling during that time period.
The DoD in its 2020 (and 2019) official reports on suicide have even put blame on service members themselves, noting relationship factors, excessive debt, administrative and legal difficulties, or lack of coping skills as risks; other more likely causes such as military sexual trauma, which appears only once in the entire document, or stress imposed by service members’ leaders, is discounted. It’s difficult to believe the culture around mental health treatment in the military’s higher echelons is changing when these arguments are a horrifying callback to those made over 100 years ago in early 20th century militaries, blaming Shellshock and other mental issues on a lack of soldier discipline or bravery.
Ignoring these environmental factors is a disservice. These stressors have been noted in scientific research such as Whitehall studies in the U.K on the health of British civil servants, which found that a lack of control at one’s job led to higher rates of mortality than those who felt they had some say over their work lives.
In 2012 for example, Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton of the 82nd Airborne Division was one of the thousands of troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban. Twice a day, his platoon went on patrols through land littered with improvised explosive devices, and Sitton wrote an email to his congressman about how he and his fellow soldiers were being put in danger needlessly with no purpose or end state. When Sitton had tried to voice his concerns to his leadership to look out for his soldiers, he was told to “stop complaining.” Two months after his email, Sitton was killed in action patrolling those same fields. The war continued for nine more years, as leader after leader claimed that progress was being made and that we were winning.
The amount of stress on personnel that comes from knowing that their leaders, who speak about honor, integrity and “choosing the hard right” are not looking out for their best interests, but instead their own, is unquantifiable. The reality personnel experienced on the ground over the past 20 years was not the reality their leaders wanted to see, even as service members attempted multiple times to inform them of the truth. After the fall of Kabul, those same leaders gave interviews on how they couldn’t prevent what happened, and how it wasn’t their fault, even after years of preaching that leaders are responsible for everything their subordinates do or fail to do.
Traumatic events during war lead to an increased risk of suicide alongside moral wounds and injuries caused by situations outside of service members’ control, but deployments aren’t the only sources of stressors. Stress and hopelessness is also induced by leaders and a culture that can often display an utter lack of care of wellbeing in garrison: examples include self-inflicted issues of inadequate health care for both physical and mental health concerns, a system that inadequately applies equal punishment across the ranks, allows on-base housing for service members to be saddled with mold and maintenance issues, and has personnel conduct change of command ceremonies in blazing 100-degree weather that leads to multiple heat casualties. Indeed, a 2002 study on military workplace stress in the Air Force found that stress was not only higher than the general population, but most of it came from factors that had nothing to do with warfare.
The military’s subpar treatment and respect of military sexual assault victims, both male and female, also serves as an example of its leaders failing to create a safe environment for all service members. From 2017 to 2019, reports of sexual assaults in the military surged by 50%. More than half of women and 35% of men in the military are affected by military sexual trauma, and 71% of female veterans seek PTSD treatment due to military sexual trauma suffered while in the services. The problem is systemic: in 2015, the DoD was recommended by GAO to identify risks and protective factors in order to help prevent sexual assault, something which it has still not done. The services were also recommended to use data-driven decision-making in their prevention efforts, which has also not occurred. Furthermore, the Army’s own report on the failure of the sexual harassment and response program at Fort Hood Texas, where Spc. Vanessa Guillen was murdered last year, found that the program there failed due to a focus by leaders on “mission readiness,” not ensuring the safety of soldiers. That focus on readiness comes from the top and is still being preached. If mission readiness is the number one priority, through both how leaders are rated and messages from higher echelons, junior leaders will continue to orient towards that goal and push other programs and issues such as ensuring that SHARP programs are properly staffed, or that servicemembers get adequate treatment, to the wayside.
Making mental health treatment a true priority has worked before. In 2010, Maj Gen. Dana Pittard created initiatives that saw Fort Bliss, within two years, have a suicide rate that decreased by 30% and that was the lowest rate in the U.S. Army. Pittard expanded mental health services, created 24-hour gym and chaplain services, expanded mental health wellness workshops, and created an environment that made soldiers not feel as afraid to seek treatment. Studies have found that some service members were 57% more likely to reveal suicide ideations on a measure they were told would not be turned into medical professionals or their unit, versus one that they were informed would. It is not just a question of resources: military mental health treatment is more widely available now than ever before, but the people who need it most may be afraid to use it. These changes on the installation led to praise from both civilian and military institutions.
When the next commander of Fort Bliss took over from Prittard and reduced the programs he started, however, suicides once again started to climb, along with the rest of the forces. In that time period, there have no doubt been other such success stories. If mental health was truly a focus, why haven’t these programs been expanded? Once again, the death by suicide numbers speak for themselves, and they’re climbing, which implies that whatever the military is doing right now isn’t working. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were failures because of a reluctance to admit the truth but the military’s fight to ensure its service members are taken care of doesn’t have to end the same way.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
Daniel Johnson is a former infantry officer and journalist who served with the United States Army in Iraq, and is currently a Roy H. Park fellow at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC–Chapel Hill. He is the author of #Inherent Resolve, a book on his unit’s experience in the war against ISIS.
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