Active-Duty Soldiers Take Their Own Lives at Record Rate

January 19, 2012 (New York Times) – Suicides among active-duty soldiers hit another record high in 2011, Army officials said on Thursday, although there was a slight decrease if nonmobilized Reserve and National Guard troops were included in the calculation.

The Army also reported a sharp increase, nearly 30 percent, in violent sex crimes last year by active-duty troops. More than half of the victims were active-duty female soldiers ages 18 to 21.

“This is unacceptable,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the departing vice chief of staff of the Army, said at a news conference, referring to the jump in violent sex offenses. “We have zero tolerance for this.” General Chiarelli said factors driving the increase in sex crimes were alcohol use and new barracks that offered more privacy. He said it was also possible that reporting of the offenses had increased.

General Chiarelli said that 164 active-duty Army, National Guard, and Reserve troops took their own lives in 2011, compared with 159 in 2010 and 162 in 2009. The increase occurred even as the Army expanded suicide prevention efforts and drug and alcohol counseling, in large part in response to a steady rise in Army suicides that began in 2004.

Asked if he was frustrated by the jump last year in suicide by active-duty soldiers, General Chiarelli said no.

“The question you have to ask yourself, and this is the number that no one can prove, what would it have been if we had not focused the efforts that we focused on it?” he said. He said that “for all practical purposes, for the last two to three years, it has leveled off.”

General Chiarelli held the news conference to release a new report, “Generating Health and Discipline in the Force,” a review of the overall health of the Army after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest period of conflict in the nation’s history. The report, printed well before Thursday, did not include the final number of 164 suicides among active-duty soldiers for 2011. General Chiarelli disclosed that statistic at the news conference, as well as the number of suicides among active-duty troops from 2008 to 2010.

General Chiarelli said that if nonmobilized National Guard and Reserve units were included, Army suicides dropped to 278 in 2011, from 305 in 2010.

Active-duty Army suicide rates have been higher than civilian rates since 2008, when there were nearly 20 suicides per 100,000 in the Army, compared with close to 18 suicides per 100,000 in a civilian population that was adjusted to be comparable to Army demographics. The Army projects that final 2011 numbers will be more than 24 suicides among active-duty soldiers per 100,000, another record high.

The rise in Army suicides has long been attributed to the stress of repeated deployments during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Army officials say there are many other factors at work, including alcohol abuse and a lowering of recruiting standards several years ago that allowed a higher-risk population into the military. In 2010, General Chiarelli said that about 60 percent of Army suicides occurred during a soldier’s first enlistment, typically four years, and that the most dangerous year was the first — suggesting that repeated deployments to war zones were not necessarily a major factor in suicide.

Since then, Army officials said there had been a decrease in the number of soldiers who committed suicide after one deployment and an increase in those who killed themselves after two or more deployments.

Last year, for example, about 40 percent of suicides occurred after one deployment and another 40 percent were committed after two or more deployments. Army officials could not explain the change, although they said they were asking themselves three questions in trying to analyze the data: Was their attention to suicide risk among young soldiers paying off? Did repeated deployments in fact place soldiers at higher risk of suicide? Did a dismal civilian job market discourage soldiers, already stressed by repeat deployments, from leaving the force?

General Chiarelli sought to paint the report in a positive light by saying that the Army leadership was paying serious attention to troubles within the force.

“The fact I’m in front of you here today laying this out for you shows you that we see these problems, we see where we’ve had successes, and we’re attacking those areas where we’ve got problems,” he said. “But I also think it shows the fact that after 10 years of war, with an all-volunteer force, you’re going to have problems that no one could have forecasted before this began.”

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