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Military struggles to find solutions as suicide rate reach all-time high

Then-Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dec. 7, 2017. (U.S. Army/Released)
September 28, 2019

Military officials are struggling to find a solution to the suicide epidemic amongst its active troops.

While the Air Force is the only branch seeing a decrease in suicide numbers, the Army, Navy and Marine Corps all have seen suicide rates go up amongst their active-duty troops, the Associated Press reports.

“I wish I could tell you we have an answer to prevent further, future suicides in the Armed Services. We don’t. We are caught up in what some call a national epidemic of suicide among our youth,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper when asked about the deaths of the crew of an aircraft carrier.

In the past two weeks, three sailors assigned to the Norfolk-based USS George H.W. Bush died in an apparent suicide, the Daily Press reported.

Although the Navy said the suicides were not related, they did mark the third, fourth and fifth crew member to commit suicide in the past two years, according to the ship’s commander, Capt. Sean Bailey.

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“You mourn for the families and for their shipmates,” Esper said of the deaths. “I wish I could tell you we have an answer to prevent future further suicides in the armed services. We don’t.”

In 2017, 511 troops committed suicide, 114 in the Army, 43 in the Marines and 65 in the Navy. While in 2018, the number of suicides increased to 541, with 139 in the Army, 58 in the Marines and 68 in the Navy. The number dipped from 63 to 60 in the Air Force from 2017 to 2018.

Young enlisted men are the most at-risk population, according to the Pentagon. Guns are used at least 60 percent of the time in the suicides.

“Our numbers are not moving in the right direction,” said the director of the Pentagon’s office of force resiliency, Elizabeth Van Winkle, noting that the fact that their numbers are comparable to civilian numbers are not comforting.

She added that the military is looking at increasing efforts to train its troops on the safe firearms storage and medication. There are no consistent rules or regulations across the department, she said.

Other points of emphasis are direct to mental health.

“Just as we talk about physical fitness, marksmanship, training and education, Marines must also be comfortable discussing life’s struggles, mental wellness and suicide,” said Gen. David Berger, commandant of the Marine Corps. “We must create a community where seeking help and assistance are simply normal, important decisions Marines and sailors make.”

For the first time, the Pentagon differed its statistics between military spouses and dependents, with the most recent numbers available being form 2017, according to Van Winkle.

According to a report, 186 military families that had suicides. 123 were spouses, and 63 were dependents between the ages of 12 and 23. Nearly 70 percent were female spouses under the age of 40, while 70 percent of the dependent suicides were males.

About half of the dependents who died from suicide were at least 18 years old. For the younger ones, most of the deaths were youth between 15 and 17.