By James Cogan
2 December 2009
The number of serving American military personnel who took their
lives in 2009 has already exceeded last year's record. These suicides
are first of all tragic. Secondly, they indicate the immense
psychological harm that the neo-colonial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
have inflicted on members of the armed forces.
The US Army, the largest branch of the military, suffered the most
dramatic increase. By 16 November, 140 soldiers on active duty and 71
National Guard and Reserve personnel had taken their lives this
yeara total of 211. By comparison, there were 52 Army suicides in
2001. The number steadily rose over the following years, reaching 197 in 2008.
The overall suicide rate in the US Army has reached 20.2 per 100,000
personnel. The Marine Corp recorded 42 suicides as of October 31the
same number as in all of 2008 and a rate of more than 19 per 100,000 personnel.
Among Americans in a comparable age bracket to military personnel,
the annual suicide rate is approximately 19 per 100,000 people. For
the overall US population, the rate in 2006 was 11.6 per 100,000,
though the number is expected to have increased since the onset of
severe recession and mass lay-offs.
The correlation between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise
in military suicides is clear. The rate among Navy and Air Force
personnelwho have not been flung into the front lines of the
conflictsis roughly the same as 2001 and well below the national
average. Before 2001, the Army and Marine rate was also below the
national average and, more significantly, generally half that
registered in a comparable age bracket. People seeking to enlist
undergo psychological examinations. Those with diagnosable disorders
that contribute to suicidal tendencies are generally turned down.
What has changed is the deployment of hundreds of thousands of
soldiers and marines to Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have been involved
in or witnessed terrible events. At least one in five have returned
with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study of veterans with
PTSD published in August by the Journal of Traumatic Stress found
that 47 percent had had suicidal thoughts before seeking treatment
and 3 percent had attempted to kill themselves.
Every day, an average of five members of the armed forces attempt
suicide. Since 2003, close to 1,000 have succeededmore than have
died in the entire eight-year war in Afghanistan. Of that number,
41.8 percent had served one tour in either Afghanistan or Iraq, 10.3
percent had been sent on two deployments, 1.7 percent had served
three tours and 0.9 percent had been deployed four or more times. The
majority were male and under 30 years of age. More than half were
married or divorced at the time.
Web searches produce numerous accounts of the terrible impact that
suicide has wrought over the past eight years. A poignant interview
with the wife of a soldier who took his life was published on
November 29 by MPNnow, a Rochester, New York-based publication.
Tricia Hobart lost her husband and father of her three children on
October 16, 2005. Mike Hobart committed suicide while back in the US
on two weeks leave from a tour in Iraq. His leave was in order to
receive treatment for nerve damage he suffered in an engagement.
Tricia Hobart told MPNnow: "I feel really bad for the families that
have gone through what we have or that will be going through it in
the future. After seeing what a year of deployment in Iraq did to my
husband, I felt that there would be many more suicides to follow.
Mike was a very loving, caring and understanding man, but after being
in Iraq for many months, things changed his behaviour.
"The men and women, after being there in times of war, are changed
for life in one way or another. Some learn to deal with their
nightmares and flashbacks of what they saw and did while there, and
some cannot put it behind them. Unfortunately, for those men and
women that can't put it behind them, suicide is one of the ways they
choose to deal with life after war."
The suicides among serving personnel are only the tip of the iceberg.
Hundreds of former soldiers, veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq
wars who have left the military either voluntarily or involuntarily,
are also taking their lives.
The US Department of Veteran Affairs does not kept an official tally.
However, a study in 2007 commissioned by CBS News found staggering
levels of suicide among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Of 6,256
veterans who took their own lives in 2005, for example, the highest
rate was among former soldiers aged 20 to 24, which was estimated to
be as much as four times higher than the national average.
The veterans' suicide telephone hotline operating out of a clinic in
Canandaigua, New York, has already taken 118,984 calls so far this
year and believes it has prevented 3,709 veterans killing themselves.
The psychological problems suffered by many veterans are being
compounded by the stresses flowing from the US economic downturn. A
study earlier this year found that at least 15 percent of former
soldiers aged 20 to 24 were unemployed. Overall unemployment among
Afghanistan and Iraq veterans was at least 11.2 percent, compared
with 8.8 percent among non-veterans in a comparable age bracket.