All seems to fit correctly in your mind: more stress, more deployments, more suicides. But is this the whole story? There is a lot more here than initially meets the eye, says our Navy officer Ryan Haag.
A Google search for “Army suicide rate” reveals almost half a million articles, most talking about the recent rise in the suicide rate.
Almost every article, from the Huffington Post to CNN, links this rise to extended deployments in support of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then have a personal interview or two with someone who knew a member that committed suicide. All seems to fit correctly in your mind: more stress, more deployments, more suicides, because we keep sending people over to fight a war on terror.
But is this the whole story? There is a lot more here than initially meets the eye.
For starters, military suicide rates are typically lower than in the average population. There are varying reasons for this, but since the military requires persons to have a GED or high school diploma, be in good physical shape, and be mentally sound (most professions in the military do some kind of mental screening), it would be no surprise to have a suicide rate less than average.
In order to find out how true this was, I went to the Center for Disease Control’s website to pull information concerning suicide. I also found an Army fact sheet that listed suicide rates. Combined together, I made the following table:
Suicide Rates Per 100,000
Year Army Rate General Population, All General Population, Males 20-24 Male Rate
2000 ~ 12.0 10.44 17.75 21.4
2001 ” 10.7 18.13 20.37
2002 ” 10.93 18.42 20.62
2003 ” 10.75 18.01 20.21
2004 ” 10.94 17.99 20.84
2005 12.7 10.88 18 20.33
2006 15.3 10.95 17.98 20.9
2007 16.8 * * *
2008 20.2 * * *
* No data available
Not much exact data was available for Army rates between 2000-2004, although most sources I found said it hovered around 12.0. And although there is no complete data for 2007 or 2008, the slow rise in the past indicates that at best the rates would stay the same.
Sadly, males 20-24 years old have higher suicide rates than the average population, as is easily seen by the CDC data. The data also shows the Army’s rate being lower than the average male rate. Since the overwhelming majority of the Army is male and aged 20-24, this is good news. The quickly rising trend in Army suicides is noticeable, and although this is alarming, it is still lower than the national average for males 20-24. In fact, despite two wars raging since 2003, the suicide rate only began a significant increase in 2006.
Multiple deployments, typically blamed, are at best only one factor. A close look at the Army’s statistics shows an almost even split among first deployers, non-deployers, and post-deployers. No one would deny that deploying to a war zone is stressful and would have some negative impact on a young man’s mind, possibly becoming the last little thing to push him to a breaking point. The Army recognized this long ago, and has multiple suicide prevention programs in place. While in Bahrain and Korea, I was bombarded with suicide prevention commercials on the Armed Forces Network channel. Suicide prevention training is mandatory among the services, and chaplains have 24/7 call lines if service members need a friendly voice in their ear.
These efforts worked in the past. Despite deploying to such nasty places as Somalia and Kosovo, Army suicide rates were never an issue. Even when Iraq and Afghanistan were at their worst, the rates stayed low. Why the sudden rise now?
The answer lies in standards. The Army has had to lower its recruits’ physical, educational, and even criminal standards to maintain necessary numbers. More waivers are being issued for overweight bellies, lack of high school education, and even felonies or other criminal offenses. As noted by USA Today, almost 13% of new recruits have conduct waivers, and only 79% are high school graduates, down from 91% in 2001.
As the Army continues to lower its standards in order to meet numbers, it begins to see the effects of having “normal” Americans in its forces. One of these effects is a higher chance for suicide. Although the Army can mold many different people into a camouflage uniform, it can have only limited success with molding behaviors and intelligence. Most brain development begins to slow after adolescence, focusing more on refinement of skills than on learning new ones. If the people coming into the Army already have criminal records, poor eating habits, and bad study skills, they aren’t likely to change, despite rigorous basic training.
This means the Army is fighting a losing battle. On one hand, it needs to increase at-home time for its soldiers in order to allow them time to unwind from battle. To do this requires numbers, which it can only get by lowering standards, which then results in an Army of “typical” people with “typical” problems, including a “typical” suicide rate.
The solution seems simple: raise standards. But do you raise standards and keep jobs unfilled, cycling people back overseas with shorter times at home? That doesn’t seem right. Do you spend more efforts recruiting? Sure, but when you can’t recruit from 30% of 18-24 year olds because they are too fat (with a Body Mass Index over 30), you can only do so much. Increase the number of soldiers who re-enlist? That is currently happening, but those people eventually retire and need to be replaced.
This issue is complicated, and needs a much more in-depth review than what CNN would have you believe. I believe the suicide rate will continue to rise even as the Army increases its at-home time for its soldiers. The fundamental problem is that the Army cannot recruit enough of the right people, and it is stuck simply recruiting enough people. This must be fixed by drawing down unnecessary jobs in the Army, in order to minimize the number of waivers that must be issued to maintain numbers. Utilizing technology in order to reduce or eliminate jobs will free up more soldiers and contractors to do the face-to-face rebuilding work that can only be done in the war zone.
Our nation will also need to face up to a terrible truth: we are fast becoming like the Roman Empire, staring at the barbarians over our walls. Two world wars taught us that regional powers from distant lands can impact our lives, and the events of 9-11 taught us that oceans are no barrier for terrorism. If our society continues to balk at the simple notions of education, physical fitness, and civility, we risk one day finding ourselves fighting for our very existence, instead of fighting wars abroad.