WASHINGTON – Nowhere is the Pentagon's suicide crisis more acute than among active-duty Army soldiers.
The Pentagon's annual report on suicide, released Thursday, found that soldiers died by suicide at the rate of 36.4 per 100,000 in 2020, up from 29.9 two years before. For all active-duty troops – soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines – the rate of suicide increased from 20.3 in 2015 to 28.7 per 100,000 in 2020.
"Put simply, suicide is the military in a crisis," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the Armed Services Committee on personnel.
In 2020, 580 troops died by suicide, compared with 504 in 2019, an increase of 15%, USA TODAY reported Wednesday.
Since 2011, the Pentagon has seen the suicide rate rise steadily and tragically despite pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into programs to stem the crisis. In 2011, the rate was 18.7 per 100,000 troops. The Army's rate today is nearly double that.
The annual report notes that after adjusting for age and sex, the suicide rate for all troops, active, Reserve and the National Guard was comparable to the U.S. population in 2019, the last year for which there is similar data. Across society, the rate of suicide has increased for more than two decades. The overall age-adjusted suicide rate in the USA increased 35.2% from 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 14.2 per 100,000 in 2018, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. It declined to 13.9 per 100,000 in 2019.
Young enlisted men, the group the Pentagon depends on to fill its ranks, are at higher risk of suicide, according to the report.
Lawmakers are concerned by clusters of suicides among soldiers. In the past week, three soldiers died by suspected suicide at Fort Drum in New York, Gillibrand said. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., wants a study of an installation in Alaska where at least six suspected suicides took place in the first half of the year, USA TODAY reported.
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Why do more troops, especially soldiers, die by suicide? Experts said reasons vary, even by base. Problems with relationships and money and the stress and uncertainty of life in the military can contribute to suicide. Life on an isolated post, especially with the harsh weather in Alaska, can add to troops' despair.
Members of Congress, growing impatient with the Pentagon's response to suicide, demand answers.
Gillibrand sent a letter Thursday to the Defense Department's top personnel official seeking more information about how failed relationships and the stress of military life contribute to suicide, noting that nearly 40% of active-duty troops who died by suicide in 2018 reported such problems.
Speier, Gillibrand's counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee, won a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Pentagon to conduct independent reviews of suicide prevention and response programs at bases for each military service.
“The suicide rate for active-duty service members increased by 41% over the past five years,” Speier said. “We are failing our service members and their loved ones at reducing these preventable deaths."
Long winters, common at Fort Drum and the rule at Army posts in Alaska, have been thought to contribute to stress that can lead to suicide. Among the general population, Alaska had the second-highest suicide rate in the nation in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Millions spent in hopes of prevention
The Army spent more than $200 million on quality-of-life initiatives in Alaska, including building facilities for soldiers to maintain their equipment in the winter, buying gym equipment and designing new living quarters.
In a joint statement, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth and Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, acknowledged the increase in soldier suicides "remains a significant challenge" that has defied solution.
"While there is no clear understanding of what is causing the increase in suicides, we realize we have to do better in preventing suicide and ensure resources are available and readily accessible," they said. "We want our soldiers to know that getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness."
The Army is launching several programs to prevent suicide, including training to identify at-risk soldiers and to intervene on their behalf, said Lt. Col. Gabriel Ramirez, an Army spokesman. Another pilot program will explore how to bolster mental health care counseling with chaplains.
Army mental health officials told USA TODAY this year that the service is exploring ways to make soldiers' lives more predictable, noting that abrupt changes to their schedules can trigger stress that leads to a crisis.
A soldier familiar with the Army programs and its problems with suicide but not authorized to speak publicly said the initiatives fail to address two concerns: relentless training and deployment cycles that wear out soldiers and stress their relationships, and the lack of quick access to trained mental health counselors when stress overwhelms them.
Brad Carson, the former top Pentagon official for personnel in the Obama administration and undersecretary for the Army, said suicide has occupied the attention of senior leaders who invested in "program after program."
Each case of suicide has unique circumstances, Carson said. He speculated that two decades of war could be an underlying factor.
"What could have been done differently? Maybe not send people into combat," said Carson, president of the University of Tulsa. "We have shown that ground combat has severe mental health consequences. We often think of possible casualties before evaluating the use of force, so perhaps it is time we factor the behavioral health consequences of war into our calculations."
The suicide toll continues to mount.
"These numbers are going in the wrong direction, and it’s our duty as leaders to protect the men and women who serve our nation," Gillibrand said. "We have to treat a mental health diagnosis the same way we would approach any physical ailment and prioritize access to mental health care services."
If you are a service member or veteran in crisis or having thoughts of suicide (or know someone who is), call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1; text 838255; or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Suicides in the military increase, and Congress pushes Pentagon on why