Army Suicides Reach Historic High

The US Army has announced that the soldier suicide rate has reached an all-time high, surpassing the civilian suicide rate for the first time. At least 128 soldiers—and perhaps as many as 143—took their own lives in 2008. The Associated Press puts this into perspective:

The new suicide figure compares with 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006 and is the highest since current record-keeping began in 1980. Officials expect the deaths to amount to a rate of 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers, which is higher than the civilian rate — when adjusted to reflect the Army’s younger and male-heavy demographics — for the first time in the same period of record-keeping…

Yearly increases in suicides have been recorded since 2004, when there were 64 — only about half the number now. Officials said they found that the most common factors were soldiers suffering problems with their personal relationships, legal or financial issues and problems on the job.

Army Secretary Peter Geren declined to characterize reasons underlying the growing number of suicides, but assured reporters that “we’re committed to doing everything we can to address the problem.” Along those lines, the Army is actively recruiting psychologists and psychiatrists to treat soldiers for symptoms associated with severe brain injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), “the defining injuries of this generation of servicemen,” says Bill White, president of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, a non-profit dedicated to improving care for wounded soldiers.

White’s organization has partnered with the Pentagon to create the National Intrepid Center for Excellence, a 72,000-square foot facility on the campus of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland, that will focus on treating soldiers for brain injuries and psychological trauma. The facility is scheduled to open later this year.

The move no doubt shows progress in the military’s thinking on PTSD, which it to date has done relatively little to treat. Earlier this month, for example, the Pentagon declared that psychological wounds sustained in combat do not merit Purple Hearts. But moving a sprawling bureaucracy to change its ways is not easy, and for the first time, it appears that things are headed in right direction for soldiers with non-physical wounds. “Things move slowly,” says Kim Ruocco of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, “but I think they’re really trying.”