Attrition: Suicides Sliding Back To Peacetime Levels


December 24, 2010: After four years of increasing suicide rates, the U.S. Army finally brought the rate down. In 2009 the rate was 28 per 100,000 troops, versus 25 for the past year. The actual number of deaths was 140 last year, 162 in 2009, 140 in 2008, 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006. Things like suicide rates are measured in how many people per 100,000 population are affected. The active duty strength of the army is over half a million troops (including a fluctuating number of activated reservists). Thus the suicide rate in 2008 was 20 per 100,000 troops . In 2007 it was 19. The rate in 2006 was 12.8, and for the last decade, had fluctuated between 10-13 per 100,000. The suicide rate for troops in Iraq has been about 40-50 percent higher than for soldiers stationed elsewhere. The suicide rate for the entire U.S. population is about 11 per 100,000. The U.S. Army notes that the suicide rate has been declining since last year, indicating that all the treatment efforts are paying off.

The U.S. Marine Corps suicide rate went down slightly this year. It had gone from 16 per 100,000 in 2001 to 22 per 100,000 in 2009. That was the first year of a spike, as the rate was 13 per 100,000 in 2006.

Both the army and marines have introduced several programs to identify and treat those at risk for suicide. This effort is linked with the overall program of dealing with combat stress. Because of much reduced death rates (a third of those in Vietnam and World War II), far more troops are spending more time in combat. During World War II it was noted that troops could only take so much combat stress before they developed debilitating mental problems. The military has developed many programs to counteract the stress, but nothing that can eliminate it.

It's well known that the suicide rate in the military is linked to stress. For example, back in 2005-6, the U.S. Navy was concerned when the suicide rate among submarine crewmen went to 35 per 100,000. At the time, the rest of the U.S. military Army had a rate about a third of that. The suicide rate for submariners was eventually brought down to 20 per 100,000, mainly because the navy identified the causes of the stress and did something about it. But it's always understood that the suicide rate among the 20,000 submarine sailors will be higher, simply because it's more stressful work.

The U.S. Air Force had a increase, with the rate this year at 17 per 100,000, versus 13 last year. The air force is still sending lots of troops to combat zones, and airmen are still serving with army units as individual augmentees (to help with support jobs). But the biggest cause of stress may be the ongoing reduction in air force strength. Much of the reduction is achieved by simply not recruiting new troops, but it's also become more difficult to re-enlist, or for officers to get another contract. Operating several hundred Predator and Reaper UAVs has proved to be more stressful than flying around in an aircraft. Still, the suicide rate is still much lower than the army and marine rates.

Non-combat stress often creates even higher suicide rates. The Russian military has a rate of 33 suicides per 100,000 troops (that's over 300 suicides). This is declining, but not fast enough. Russia is not at war, except for a small force in Chechnya, where they face remnants of separatist and Islamic terrorist groups. The Russian problem is institutionalized brutality of senior troops towards junior troops. This has been a problem since the end of World War II, and the government has been trying to fix it for over a decade now.




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