Last year, 121 soldiers took their own lives, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006.
At the same time, the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries in the Army has jumped sixfold since the Iraq war began. Last year, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002, according to the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan.
According to my calculations, those numbers mean over two suicides each week, as well as forty self-inflicted wounds or attempted suicides each week!
The Army was unprepared for the high number of suicides and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among its troops, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued far longer than anticipated. Many Army posts still do not offer enough individual counseling and some soldiers suffering psychological problems complain that they are stigmatized by commanders. Over the past year, four high-level commissions have recommended reforms and Congress has given the military hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its mental health care, but critics charge that significant progress has not been made.
The report also notes that, historically, suicide rates tend to decrease when soldiers are in conflicts overseas, but that trend has now reversed.
From a suicide rate of 9.8 per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2001 -- the lowest rate on record -- the Army reached an all-time high of 17.5 suicides per 100,000 active-duty soldiers in 2006.
Colonel Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, the Army’s top psychiatrist and author of the study, said that suicides and attempted suicides “are continuing to rise despite a lot of things we’re doing now and have been doing.”
Ritchie's team conducted more than 200 interviews in the United States and overseas, and found that the common factors in suicides and attempted suicides include failed personal relationships; legal, financial or occupational problems; and the frequency and length of overseas deployments. She said the Army must do a better job of making sure that soldiers in distress receive mental health services. "We need to know what to do when we're concerned about one of our fellows."
The psychic and physical damage done to the soldiers is one of the incalculable tragic consequences of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, an “incalculable” that increases exponentially when you consider the impact on their families and communities. We are still coping with the damage done to a generation who fought in Vietnam. And, of course, this doesn’t even touch the damage to untold generations of men, women, and children in the war zones. Thinking about it makes me sad; it also makes me angry about the decisions that put these young women and men into a senseless war—the one factor not mentioned in the study.