Suicides in the military dropped by 6 percent last year, a decline that Pentagon officials hope signals a reversal in a tragic trend — but that some advocates say does not reflect the true scope of the issue in the military and veterans’ community.
According to data published Tuesday by the Defense Department, 479 service members — 259 active-duty troops, 87 Reserve members and 133 National Guard members — died by suicide in 2013, down from 319 active-duty members and 203 non-activated Reserve and Guard members in 2012.
The rate per 100,000 — a measure used to compare incidence across the services and the civilian population — also dropped for the active-duty force, from 22.7 to 18.7.
The civilian rate, adjusted for demographics similar to those who serve in the military, is 18.8 per 100,000, according to calculations by the Army and the National Institutes of Mental Health.
But a new method of accounting instituted this year by DoD presents a challenge in interpreting the extent of the drops within each service and the various force components.
For the first time, the Pentagon counted as active duty only those in the active component, including academy cadets and midshipmen. Excluded were Reserve members and National Guard members who were mobilized at the time of their deaths, who previously had been counted as active-duty personnel.
The Pentagon also changed its methods for calculating rates. Under the old system, the rate in 2012 was 17.5 per 100,000. But the new system indicates the rate for that year — which saw the highest number of military suicides since the Pentagon began close tracking in 2001 — was 22.7 per 100,000.
The new rate for 2013, 18.7 per 100,000 among active-duty members, was calculated using the new definition of active component.
Defense officials say the change was made to improve programs to serve the individual components. According to Defense Suicide Prevention Office director Jacqueline Garrick, the new accounting methods provide a better perspective on which communities are affected, allowing DoD to tailor programs to the components.
For example, while reserve members on active duty have access to numerous programs and initiatives on base and in their workplace, they may return home to areas where there is less support. Understanding how many reservists have been affected will improve strategies to help them, Garrick said.
“We’re trying to really target in on specific things ... we’re looking at access to care in remote and rural areas,” she said.
DoD has implemented numerous mental health and suicide prevention programs to reverse what has been a growing problem since the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While military suicides are often thought to be linked to combat service and the psychological stresses of war, Pentagon reports show that more than half the service members who commit suicide never deployed to a combat zone.
Military suicides began rising in 2006 and hit 284 active-duty deaths before dipping slightly in 2010 and 2011, then soaring to 319 in 2012.
The Army, the largest service, had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops in 2013, 123. The Air Force recorded 48 suicides, down from 50 in 2012, while the Marine Corps had 45, down from 48. The Navy saw the largest percentage decrease — a 25-percent drop to 43.
Among Reserve and National Guard troops, the Army Reserve had the highest number of suicides in 2013, 60, for a rate of 30.1 per 100,000. The Army National Guard also recorded a high rate, 33.4 percent per 100,000, with 119 suicides in 2013.
Those numbers do not incorporate the Veterans Affairs Department estimate of 22 veterans — those who served at some point but have left the military — who die each day by suicide.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, cautioned against declaring victory over the declining active-duty figures because the data is “offset by the alarming increased numbers in the Reserves and National Guard.”
“We know that most post-9/11 suicides happen after veterans leave the Department of Defense. To get a full picture of the scope of veterans suicides, we must assess the rate for the entire population of veterans who have served since 9/11,” Rieckhoff said.
DoD officials said that while they are heartened to see a decline, they continue to pursue the goal of zero suicides in the U.S. military.
“One loss to suicide is one too many. We will continue to do everything possible to prevent [it],” Garrick said.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, the Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 800-273-8255.