PRESIDENT OBAMA recently broke a longstanding tradition and began writing letters of condolence to the families of soldiers who died from suicide. It was an important acknowledgment that the nation will honor those who served but perished by means other than combat. Obama’s decision applied only to soldiers who died overseas. Ironically, many soldiers who commit suicide have not been in the Army long enough to ever deploy.
The most dangerous year to be a soldier is the first year, and, as evidenced in a recent Army report, that has nothing to do with the Taliban, Iraqi insurgents, or poor training. It may, in fact, have more to do with the conditions of the recruits coming in.
The Army study is admirably frank in its findings, but unfortunately not frank enough. “The self-selection bias of young adults who are willing to join the Army at a time of war may indicate a higher level of risk tolerance than their civilian counterparts.’’ That’s a very muted way of suggesting that too many recruits may already be prone to self-destructive behavior, and the Army is putting them in a situation that leads to even greater stress.
But the Army study begs the ultimate question of how these recruits, with the euphemistic “higher level of risk tolerance,’’ are getting into the Army in the first place.
Between high-risk behavior that leads to accidents, and the despondency that can cause suicide, more men and women in the Army die by their own actions than through combat. In the past, many in the military have suggested that the stresses of combat are the prime cause of self-destructive behavior. But the report’s suggestion that a greater culprit may be an earlier tendency toward risky behavior among some wartime recruits is supported by the numbers.
In 2009, the year that was the basis of the Army study, there were close to 2,000 suicides or known attempts among active-duty soldiers. With 160 deaths from suicide, the Army outpaced the general population in suicides per capita. Of those, 79 percent had been of soldiers who had deployed only once or not at all. Sixty percent were among first-year soldiers. And the numbers for 2010 appear to be consistent with those of the previous year, according to the Army.
The Army insists it has not lowered recruitment standards this decade. That’s true, but in the years after the start of the Iraq war it began granting far more waivers to otherwise unqualified applicants. Since 2004, about 20 percent of all recruits have been allowed entrance through a waiver process that essentially forgives conditions that would have been disqualifying in other years. Half of those waivers went to men and women with past drug addiction, alcohol addiction, misdemeanor convictions, or even more serious criminal conduct.
The link missing in the Army report is what percentage of the suicides have been among those who got in due to a waiver. The Army hints that “allowing this high-risk population to remain in the operating force has significant consequences,’’ it doesn’t answer the obvious question of whether a disporportionate number of suicides stems from those receiving waivers.
Likewise, the study does not provide the suicide rate among veterans, which might provide a better sense of how the wars are affecting soldiers in the long term. Indeed, that number is difficult to tally for a reason that could be easily solved: Most states do not acknowledge previous military status on death certificates. And some of those who do, such as Massachusetts, have a smaller percentage of veterans than those who do not, such as Texas.
The Pentagon estimates that 18 military veterans will commit suicide a day. Nationally, veterans commit about 20 percent of all suicides, though they constitute less than 7 percent of the population.
Those numbers may underestimate the problem. “Ideally, the federal government would work to identify veterans who die by suicide by checking Social Security numbers with Veterans Affairs numbers. They are doing this work this year, but only as a one-time effort,’’ says Dr. Margaret Harrell, director of the Joining Forces Initiative at the Center for a New American Security.
Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. For the Army, or any service, determining the cause of suicides is vital to understanding the consequences of how we wage war. The failure may be on the front end with recruitment, or the back end with a lack of health services, or both. But it is a failure, and more fully understanding the active service and veteran suicide numbers is the only way the Army will begin to fully understand the impact a decade of war has had on a force dependent on volunteers, whether they are prone to risky behavior or not.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem