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4 times as many troops and vets died by suicide than combat in post 9/11 era, study says

Image for military suicide awareness. (U.S. Air Force illustration by Airman 1st Class Kathryn R.C. Reaves)
June 22, 2021

In the post 9/11 era, more than four times as many service members and veterans have died to suicide than any combat cause, according to a new study by the Costs of War Project published Monday.

The Costs of War Project’s study found that while suicide rates among the general public have been on the rise for the past 20 years, suicide rates among the military and veteran community continue to outpace the U.S. national average. The study concludes, “At least four times as many service members and war veterans of post-9/11 conflicts have died of suicide than ever died in combat.”

The study also stated that, when adjusted for age and sex, the 2020 Department of Veterans Affairs National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual
Report found that veterans are 1.5 times more likely the general population to commit suicide. The study adds, “This rate is likely a conservative one because, unlike earlier reports, the V.A. only counts veterans who were federally activated, leaving out Reservists and National Guardsmen who were not federally activated.

The study similarly said that, in regards to active-military suicide cases, Department of Defense figures could also be off because “the DoD may not count overdoses, single-vehicle wrecks, weapon misfires, and the like as
completed suicides”

By the numbers, the study found an estimated 30,177 active duty service members and war veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide, compared to the 7,057 killed in U.S. military operations collectively known as the “Global War on Terror.”

“This marks a failure by the military and U.S. society to manage the mental health cost of our current conflicts,” the Costs of War Project said.

The Costs of War Project, which was started in 2010 by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, argued the “clear contributors to suicidal ideation” include “high exposure to trauma – mental, physical, moral, and sexual – stress and burnout, the influence of the military’s hegemonic masculine culture, continued access to guns, and the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian life.”

The study found suicide rates among both active service members and veterans have both worsened over the past 20 years and were particularly bad among 18 to 34-year-olds.

One interesting note from the study was that interactions with combat were not necessarily an accurate predictor of which groups were most susceptible to suicidal behavior. Department of Defense data found that among active-duty troops, more suicides are carried out by service members who never deployed than service members who did deploy. Among veterans, deployments and combat experience were more indicative of suicidal behavior.

The study states, “Nondeployed troops have an even higher risk of suicide, and it is not clear why. Some have suggested the possibility that physicians appropriately screened out those with mental health conditions before
deployment or that access to mental health resources is more readily available to deployed components than non-deployed ones.54 Others have suggested military life’s intense operational tempo spreads well beyond the battlefield, and violence can affect service members even if they never deploy.”

The study concluded that “the military needs to promote help-seeking attitudes and frame them positively. Accordingly, medical screenings for
PTSD, TBIs, depression, and suicidal ideation must be universal, communicated across all channels, and taken seriously.”