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Pentagon: Military Suicides Hit Record High of 349 in 2012

Stephanie Farmer visits the Arkansas grave of her late husband, Army Spc. Josh Farmer, who killed himself in 2009. (Photo: Jim Greenhill)

Stephanie Farmer visits the Arkansas grave of her late husband, Army Spc. Josh Farmer, who killed himself in 2009. (Photo: Jim Greenhill)

New figures from the Pentagon reveal a record number of military suicides in 2012, the third time in four years in which suicides outnumbered combat deaths among active duty US personnel.

According to the Defense Department, there were 349 active duty suicides in 2012, up from the previous record of 310 set in 2009. By contrast, the Associated Press counted 295 US combat deaths in Afghanistan last year.

Broken down by service branch, there were 182 suicides in the Army, 60 in the Navy, 59 in the Air Force and 48 in the Marine Corps. The Marine total is up by 50 percent from 2011.

These figures only count active duty service members who kill themselves. A 2011 study found that there is a suicide every 80 minutes among US military veterans.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the surge in suicides an “epidemic.” Some members of Congress have echoed Panetta and have called on the Pentagon to do more to reverse the disturbing trend.

“This is an epidemic that cannot be ignored,” Rep. Patty Murray (D-WA) told the AP on Monday. “As our newest generation of service members and veterans face unprecedented challenges, today’s news shows we must do more to ensure they are not slipping through the cracks.”

The 2012 statistics have shocked some observers because the war in Iraq is now over and the war in Afghanistan is beginning to wind down. The spike in suicides began in 2006 during the height of the Iraq war, when the Army’s ‘stop-loss’ policy involuntarily lengthened service times, combat casualties were high and Pentagon brass were slow to recognize the scope and seriousness of problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an ailment which afflicts as many as 30 percent of combat veterans.

After exceeding combat deaths for the first time in 2009, and again in 2010, military suicides dropped slightly in 2011 before rebounding last year.

Experts warn that our troops will be particularly vulnerable to suicide in the coming months.

“Now that we’re decreasing our troops and they’re coming back home, that’s when they’re really in the danger zone,” said Kim Ruocco, director of the Tragedy Assistance Programs (TAP), a suicide prevention group inspired by the suicide of her Marine husband who killed himself in 2005. “They’re transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves,” Ruocco told the AP.

David Rudd, a military suicide researcher at the University of Utah, said there are two groups of troops who are increasingly turning to suicide as an answer to their problems– Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from depression, PTSD and drug and alcohol abuse; and troops who have not seen war but who suffer from personal, financial or legal problems.

In 2010, Dr. Ira Katz, head of the Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health division, sent an email in which he acknowledged that around 12,000 veterans attempt to kill themselves each year. But according to a lawsuit filed by veterans, the VA tried to cover up this alarming number.

The Pentagon points out that the suicide rate among active duty troops is actually lower than among the civilian population. That is correct– the civilian suicide rate among military-aged males was 25 per 100,000 population in 2010, while among active duty troops it was 17.5 out of every 100,000, according to the Associated Press.

A Pentagon spokeswoman released a statement in which she said the Defense Department is doing everything it can to assist troops and veterans who are at risk of killing themselves.

“Our most valuable resource within the department is our people,” said Cynthia O. Smith. “We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military.”

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