The suicide rate for active-duty military fell 18 percent in 2013, but the toll is still daunting — 474 troops killed themselves, according to a Pentagon report released Friday.
The preliminary 2013 total deaths by suicide were 261 among active duty service members and 213 deaths in the reserve component, compared with a total 522 a year earlier.
The latest report, covering 2012, breaks down the demographics of victims but doesn’t specify where they occurred or how many were connected to San Diego County’s Navy and Marine bases.
In 2012, a total of 319 suicides were reported among active-duty personnel and 203 among those in the reserve components, said the 236-page report for that calendar year.
“With an 18 percent drop in 2013, something is going right,” said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, military deputy at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. “One suicide is always too many, but we have to focus our efforts now where we think they are most needed.”
The 2012 suicide rate [expressed as a number per 100,000 service members] for the active component was 22.7. For the reserve components, it was 24.2. Across the services in 2012, the Army had 155 soldiers commit suicide. A total of 57 airmen and 59 sailors committed suicide, with 47 Marines taking their lives.
A total of 841 service members had one or more attempted suicides in 2012.
The department has only preliminary suicide data for 2013, Linnington said.
In 2013, the active component rate has come down about 18 percent. The reserve rates rose slightly, he said.
Effort and money must go into programs that promote wellness and resilience, especially in those community based programs that reach out to the reserve component personnel, said Jacqueline Garrick, director for the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.
The report is important, she said, because it gives officials data to back up decisions.
“It allows us visibility on what the issues and problems are so we can look at our programs and see if we are matching up, and targeting the issues that we really need to target, specific to things that we know could help facilitate suicide prevention,” Garrick said.
Linnington said the data contained in the report ensures the department is not duplicating some efforts and leaving gaps in other areas.
Up through 2011, the Pentagon logged suicide data for only active duty numbers. This meant active-duty personnel and reservists serving on active duty.
Yet doing that only covered about 10 percent of the reserve components. Active duty personnel get treatment at camps, forts, bases and stations versus reservists who need the community based programs.
“We weren’t gathering information on all reservists and, we didn’t have good data on what was going on in the communities where these reservists live, work, play and get treatment,” Linnington said.
The time is right to deal with this issue, Linnington and Garrick said. Congress has fully funded suicide prevention programs the department needs.
“Even under sequestration, Congress provided us continuing resolution funding and the administration has really put a spotlight on this issue,” Garrick said.
The Defense Department is working closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services on this issue.
“All the departments are joining forces so we’re tackling this problem with a unified front,” she said.
Suicide prevention requires committed leadership, Linnington said.
“Leaders at all levels need to take this on head on,” he said. “Leaders are responsible for creating climates of dignity and respect in their units; cohesive environments where folks get help from each other when it’s needed, reducing the barriers to reducing the barriers to care.”
This goes to the “heart of what it means to be a military professional: Taking care of subordinates, and building and maintaining those bonds of trust between each other is definitely part of the solution,” the general said.
He believes the message is beginning to permeate through the force. Service members “don’t listen when it’s a large groups listening to a lecture,” he said. “But when you get them in small groups, and talk about what it means to take care of each other, it works. They understand the need to get involved when they need to get involved. We need to put this personally to them: What would they do if they see their battle buddies struggling with issues — emotional, behavior, family, financial?
“When you get to the lower levels, and its soldier helping soldier,” he continued, “that’s when you know you’re making progress.”
Suicide happens in the civilian community as well, Garrick said, noting is the 10th-leading cause of death among Americans.
“People come into the military with issues and problems and leave the military with issues and problems,” she said. “We know there will be some overlaps in trends with the civilian population.”
DOD partners with Health and Human Services and the VA on a military crisis line so service members, veterans and their families to get the help they need, Garrick said.
“What one person considers a crisis may not be what another one considers a crisis,” she said. “Just ask for the help, make the phone call, work with a professional that can help you get the resources and do the follow-up and help resolve whatever is going on.”
This Military Crisis Line provides confidential help and can be reached at 1-800-273-8255Call: 1-800-273-8255. Folks can chat online at www.MilitaryCrisisLine.net or send a text to 838255. In Europe call 00800-1273-8255 or DSN 118.
“Suicide is a very complex issue with complex set of solutions and it really requires our best efforts from team leaders to four-stars,” Linnington said.
— American Forces Press Service contributed to this report.