No Easy Answers for Military Suicides

no easy answers

By Debbie Gregory.

Media outlets in Clarksville, TN have obtained reports on the investigations of 17 recent suicides in the military community there. What they have found is that there is no common thread linking the deaths. What they know for sure is that the number of military suicides today is worse than it was a decade ago.

What they learned about the victims from the reports:

• Some victims were driven perfectionists and model soldiers. Some were anything but. Drugs and alcohol show up in some files and not at all in others. The same goes for financial problems.

• Some had no relationship issues, criminal conduct or even minor misconduct, while others rode the razor’s edge of trouble all the way down the chute to oblivion.

• Some gave signs or cried out for help, but many did not, and in too many cases, victims were so good at hiding their problems and pain that their deaths took those closest to them completely by surprise.

Surprisingly, none of the soldiers who committed suicide had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fifteen of the 17 reports available involved units of the 101st Airborne, which cover nearly 30,000 soldiers at the post. Two cases occurred within the much-smaller 5th Special Forces Group. The available reports do not include soldiers who committed suicide while deployed. Two cases involved women soldiers. The rest were men. That breakdown is close to the actual gender composition of the Army.

As the number of military suicides continues to rise, so do the number of people who blame the decade of war and resulting TBI and PTSD cases. While the consequences of PTSD and TBI are very real problems that society will be dealing with for generations to come, according to military figures, 53 percent of all service members who commit suicide had never deployed.

Of those who had deployed, many were never in combat zones. And of those in combat zones, many didn’t engage in direct combat with the enemy. According to the Department of Defense Suicide Event Report for 2011, 85 percent of military suicides never experienced direct combat.

Army guidelines no longer stipulate combat service as required for a PTSD diagnosis. But even with that expanded guideline, a majority of military suicides have no corresponding diagnosis of PTSD or TBI to point to as a factor. Suicide rates have risen among service members who have deployed and among those who have not.

The spike in military suicides hit a peak in 2012 with 350 – or nearly one a day – combining active-duty, reserve and National Guard figures. The figure exceeded the 295 combat deaths for 2012, causing a public outcry.

“It’s easy for the press and the public to look at the number of suicides coming out of the Army and conclude there’s a crisis,” said Scott Ridgway of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. “But they don’t realize that suicide is just as common, or even more so, in the general population. On average there are more than 900 confirmed suicide deaths in Tennessee each year, and about 35,000 nationwide.

“I think that the media and general public expect fewer suicides in the military because it’s a controlled environment. Fort Campbell has approximately 34,000 service members and 50,000 civilians living on or around the base. If you compare that to any other community in this area with a similar population, you’ll find that the suicide rates these days are running about the same.

“Of course, even one suicide is too many.”