It’s not supposed to happen this way. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close, the stress on America’s military should be easing. But Pentagon statistics obtained by Robert Burns of the Associated Press on Friday show that there were 154 suicides in the first 155 days of 2012. The external enemy is not the primary reason for the body bags anymore; suicides are exceeding combat deaths in Afghanistan by 50 percent.
It isn’t for lack of attention that the numbers come as such a shock. The most disturbing aspect of these disclosures is that they involved active-duty members. This means that they are wards of the Pentagon, in many respects. And while the Pentagon has made serious and sustained efforts to address suicide, the numbers suggest that the message isn’t taking hold. These efforts still seem to be viewed as civilian answers to a military problem. Suicide prevention must become, in military speak, a core mission.
The rise in active-duty suicides does not even include veterans of the wars. Veterans may provide an easier explanation for why prevention isn’t working: They scatter to different states, face unemployment, or carry the wounds of war silently to their destinations.
But active-duty suicides are under our watch. When suicide deaths exceeded combat deaths in 2008 and 2009, the Defense Department launched substantial efforts to assist its active-duty members. Mental health is taken much more seriously throughout the forces. Hotlines were established, programs were funded, mental health professionals were deployed, and stress management was prioritized. A new office for Suicide Prevention and Risk Reduction was even established.
This isn’t a problem with no name.
That is why the government seemed so surprised by the rise in suicides now, an 18 percent increase over the same period last year. But the combination of explanations — long deployments, multiple deployments, the nature of the combat, and the stress of whatever is going on back home, including financial and familial needs — is simply not new.
The difficulty is that soldiers still appear, despite the Pentagon’s emphasis to the contrary, to believe that acknowledging depression or suicidal tendencies is unmanly, or a sign of weakness, or might undermine their chances for promotion. The institution itself seems to view dealing with suicide and mental health issues as an “add on,” one of those additional requirements that don’t fit the core mission but must be addressed because the numbers can’t be ignored.
Whatever the excuses, the military at all levels has to take command of the situation. The message is not getting to the field. Major General Dana Pittard, a commander at Fort Bliss, went to his blog and wrote last month, “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.” Talk about being off message. The posting was retracted, but Pittard never did admit his error and still commands one of the Army’s largest units. The damage is done. And Army suicides are the highest amongst all the branches.
We know these wars are horrible; we’ve known so for a long time. But it’s too late to fix the problem of waging wars with erroneous expectations of how they will end. That can only guide our decisions about whether we start, and how we conduct, future wars. For now, suicide in the ranks is the military’s problem and, given the numbers, must be its core mission.
Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter