Reports received this month show that 26 active-duty members of the US Army died last month due to suicide. Though not all confirmed, the figure would be the highest amount in a single month on record since the military started tracking figures in 2009.
Twelve National Guard members or otherwise non-active members of the armed forces also took their lives in July. The Marine Corps recorded eight suspected suicides in July.
The increasing numbers of deaths has confounded government and military spokesmen, who hoped the impact of decreasing combat deployments in recent months would have an intervening effect on troop suicides. In comments before Congress last month, Secretary of State Leon Panetta characterized the suicide rate as “an epidemic.” Gen. Loyd J. Austin III, the Army’s vice-chief of staff, commented, “Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army.” In a widely publicized interview earlier this year, Army chief of staff Ray Odierno admitted that suicides were the leading cause of death in the Army, ahead of combat fatalities.
According to reports, the US armed forces saw 154 suicides in the first seven months of 2012. This represents a 50 percent increase of the amount seen last year in the same period. The Army accounts for the majority of troop suicides, with 116 such deaths this year coming from its ranks. The figure represents a 22 percent increase from last year.
A new and somewhat more revealing statistic is the occurrence of a large proportion of suicides by more-experienced officers. Of the 116 suicides by the Army this year, 54 came from officers ranked sergeant or higher. “The Army has traditionally viewed younger soldiers as the most vulnerable suicide population,” Army analyst Bruce Shahbaz told USA Today, “but that may be changing.” This pattern shows an increased number of experienced soldiers succumbing to the stresses of continual deployment.
Speaking about the number of increased deaths despite a waning of combat, Shahbaz stated this may be due to troops being sent home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), causing “emotional adjustments [to]…become a struggle.” Shahbaz likened it to “a pot that’s on simmer.”
The military first began keeping records of suicides in 2009. In the four-year span prior to that, more than 1,000 active or former military personnel reportedly committed suicide. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, each day an estimated 18 military veterans take their own lives.
The Army Times reported that in 2009 alone a reported 1,898 troops attempted suicide. The year before, 2008, saw the first instance since the Vietnam War in which troop suicides outpaced that of the civilian population.
It should be noted that at the time of the Vietnam War, the military still conscripted its members. Today, despite the draft being eliminated and the military forces being nominally “voluntary,” the military has been guaranteed a steady flow of soldiers entering its ranks due to economic circumstances.
Returning troops face numerous hardships, including drug dependency, untreated mental health problems, and difficulty finding employment or re-adjusting to civilian life. Homicides committed by non-active members of the military have skyrocketed in the past years. In 2007-2008, the homicide rate of members of just one platoon, the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team’s members produced a murder rate higher than 114 times the rate of Colorado Springs, Colorado—the city in which their unit was stationed (see “What imperialist war produces: Iraq veterans charged with murder and other crimes“).
Told they are fighting to bring “democracy” to the nations of Central Asia, troops increasingly face isolation from the populations they encounter. Washington’s presence in Afghanistan has fueled a massive insurgency that has created the instance of “green-on-blue” killings, or attacks on NATO soldiers by members of the local appointed Afghan forces, with whom they are to be collaborating. The Washington Post cites figures saying as many as 13 percent of all troop deaths in Afghanistan in 2012 have come from such fire.
Kim Ruocco, a mental health social worker whose husband, a Marine, committed suicide in 2005, told the Washington Post, “we need more money, more resources, and we need to make mental health care a higher priority.” The Post also mentioned the possibility of soldiers with reported cases of PTSD being awarded the congressional Purple Heart so as to “reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.” The paltriness of such gestures gives one a sense of the elite’s inability and unwillingness to cope with the victims of the crisis it has brought about.
Earlier this year, a scandal erupted when it was discovered that psychiatrists at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, were reversing diagnoses of troops with PTSD. The findings found that up to 300 diagnoses had been altered to rid the Army services of “malingerers,” or soldiers the Army claims were faking the illness. An unsigned memo from psychiatrists stated that “We have to ensure we are not just ‘rubber stamping’ a soldier with the diagnosis of PTSD” and also to be sure to be “good stewards of the tax-payer dollars.”
Constantly propagated in the ranks of the armed forces is the idea that soldiers are “elite warriors” that defend “freedom” and that anyone succumbing to the pressures of combat will be viewed as weak. Such an attitude is in line with the general consensus of the bourgeoisie, which states “there is no money” for basic social programs from health care to college education for the population.
Army Gen. Major Dana Pittard, speaking in January, said of soldiers coping with the effects of long-term active deployment and strenuous mental abuse: “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.” Such is the real attitude of the bourgeoisie in regards to “supporting the troops” (see “Suicide crisis mounts for US soldiers and veterans“).
Increased funding for veterans’ suffering from the effects of war will not solve the causes of such problems, which are fundamentally the wars themselves. Troops are increasingly flung across the globe, where they are brutalized by the experience of colonial occupation, only to return to civilian life and confront joblessness and lack of basic social infrastructure.