Alarming Rise in Military Suicides: More Than Double Rate in 1999

AP’s Robert Burns yesterday delivered sad news on a large rise in the rate of military suicides.  Just over a month ago, Burns discovered that the military has been systematically under-reporting “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan by only providing reports on deaths and not reporting attacks in which soldiers are wounded or unharmed.

Burns notes that suicides have held at almost exactly one each day for a period of almost half the year and that this is a large increase over what had been lower, steady rates the past two years. Sadly, deaths by suicide far outnumber combat deaths this year:

Suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war.

The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan— about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press.


Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.


The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.

Burns notes that although numerous mental health and counseling programs have been put in place suicides continue at a very high rate. Contributing factors are discussed:

The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.

I thought it would be informative to find the rate of suicides before the ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. An AP article on military suicides from June, 2000 can be found here. It also was written by Robert Burns.

The suicides reported in that article for calendar year 1999 are broken down by branches of the armed services and in terms of deaths per 100,000 troops. The rates were 15.5 per 100,000 in the Army, 15 in the Marines, 11 in the Navy and 5.6 in the Air Force. Consulting this table of the number of active duty members of those branches, actual numbers come out to 65 suicides in the Army (although Burns noted there were 65 confirmed suicides and another 12 suspected suicides that are not included), 26 in the Marines, 41 in the Navy and 20 in the Air Force. That computes to a projected total of 152 suicides for calendar 1999. The total size of the force of active duty personnel for 1999 was 1,385,703.

Active duty forces now also total 1.4 million, so annual rates can be compared evenly. The rate for this year of 154 suicides in 155 days computes to a projected total of 363 suicides for this year. That suggests that after the decade of wars our armed forces have been asked to conduct, the suicide rate has more than doubled, going up by a factor of 2.4, from 152 per year to 363 while the force size has remained the same.


Col. Davis Goes to Washington: A One-Man Battle for Truth-Telling About Afghanistan

When separate classified reports casting doubt on the military’s claims of progress in the Afghanistan war were discussed in the New York Times on January 20 and then by BBC (and Times of London) on February 1, my response to both incidents was to blame upper-level military figures for releasing the damaging information in order to reach the higher goal (for them) of maintaining the war effort in Afghanistan beyond the planned hand-off to Afghan forces. The timing seemed to fit well with a hope on their part that Republican presidential candidates would grab onto a campaign promise not to end the US war effort. However, after the second leak, I did receive one third- or fourth-hand report suggesting that it had been leaked by senior military officer upset by the lack of progress in Afghanistan who most definitely did not aim to prolong the war effort there.

With the publication of a story about him in today’s New York Times and publication yesterday of his own statement in the Armed Forces Journal, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis becomes the first mid-level officer willing to speak out about the lack of progress in Afghanistan and the military’s insistence on painting a false picture of success. [It should be noted up front that it seems quite unlikely Davis is behind either of the earlier leaks, as evidenced by the steps he has taken to separate public from classified information in the actions he has taken.] The Times article, titled “In Afghan War, Officer Becomes a Whistle-Blower”, describes the actions Davis has taken:

Since enlisting in the Army in 1985, he said, he had repeatedly seen top commanders falsely dress up a dismal situation. But this time, he would not let it rest. So he consulted with his pastor at McLean Bible Church in Virginia, where he sings in the choir. He watched his favorite movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” one more time, drawing inspiration from Jimmy Stewart’s role as the extraordinary ordinary man who takes on a corrupt establishment.

And then, late last month, Colonel Davis, 48, began an unusual one-man campaign of military truth-telling. He wrote two reports, one unclassified and the other classified, summarizing his observations on the candor gap with respect to Afghanistan. He briefed four members of Congress and a dozen staff members, spoke with a reporter for The New York Times, sent his reports to the Defense Department’s inspector general — and only then informed his chain of command that he had done so.

The statement in the Armed Forces Journal opens in this way:

I spent last year in Afghanistan, visiting and talking with U.S. troops and their Afghan partners. My duties with the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force took me into every significant area where our soldiers engage the enemy. Over the course of 12 months, I covered more than 9,000 miles and talked, traveled and patrolled with troops in Kandahar, Kunar, Ghazni, Khost, Paktika, Kunduz, Balkh, Nangarhar and other provinces.

What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground. Read more