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More U.S. military personnel have died by suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died fighting there. The rate jumped 80% from 2004 to 2008, and while it leveled off in 2010 and 2011, it has soared 18% this year. Suicide has passed road accidents as the leading noncombat cause of death among U.S. troops. While it's hard to come by historical data on military suicides--the Army has been keeping suicide statistics only since the early 1980s--there's no denying that the current numbers constitute a crisis.
The specific triggers for suicide are unique to each service member. The stresses layered on by war--the frequent deployments, the often brutal choices, the loss of comrades, the family separation--play a role. So do battle injuries, especially traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And the constant presence of pain and death can lessen one's fear of them.
But combat trauma alone can't account for the trend. Nearly a third of the suicides from 2005 to 2010 were among troops who had never deployed; 43% had deployed only once. Only 8.5% had deployed three or four times. Enlisted service members are more likely to kill themselves than officers, and 18-to-24-year-olds more likely than older troops. Two-thirds do it by gunshot; 1 in 5 hangs himself. And it's almost always him: nearly 95% of cases are male. A majority are married.
No program, outreach or initiative has worked against the surge in Army suicides, and no one knows why nothing works. The Pentagon allocates about $2 billion--nearly 4% of its $53 billion annual medical bill--to mental health. That simply isn't enough money, says Peter Chiarelli, who recently retired as the Army's second in command. And those who seek help are often treated too briefly.
Army officials declined to discuss specific cases. But Kim Ruocco directs suicideprevention programs at the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. She knows what Leslie McCaddon and Rebecca Morrison have endured; her husband, Marine Major John Ruocco, an AH-1 Cobra helicopter-gunship pilot, hanged himself in 2005. These were highly valued, well-educated officers with families, with futures, with few visible wounds or scars; whatever one imagines might be driving the military suicide rate, it defies easy explanation. "I was with them within hours of the deaths," Ruocco says of the two new Army widows. "I experienced it through their eyes." Their stories, she says, are true. And they are telling them now, they say, because someone has to start asking the right questions.
The Bomb Grunt