FORT CARSON, Colo. — Suicides in the Army fell by 19 percent in 2013, dramatically reversing a rising trend plaguing the Army for almost 10 years.
There were 150 suicides among soldiers on active-duty status last year, down from a record 185 in 2012, according to Army data. The numbers include both confirmed and suspected suicides.
Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, chief of Army personnel, says he is cautiously optimistic in seeing success in Army programs to avert suicides by giving soldiers coping strategies for keeping a positive or optimistic outlook.
“I’m not declaring any kind of victory here,” Bromberg says. “It’s looking more promising.”
Within the ranks, it has meant that people such as Levertis Jackson, an Afghanistan War veteran whose despair led him several times to try to kill himself, have chosen life.
“It was like before, all my doors were closed, and I’m in a dark room,” says Jackson, 41, married and father of four. “(Now) I look for reasons why I need to continue to live.”
He left the Army last year after completing an experimental treatment plan at Fort Carson that helps soldiers cope with deadly, self-destructive impulses. Research results slated to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show a promising 60 percent reduction in suicide attempts by 30 soldiers who participated in the program.Efforts such as this one conducted by the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah and the University of Memphis are part of complex effort by the Army to reduce suicides. Larger initiatives include years of expanding behavioral health counseling.
“I think we’ve hit the turning point where people are really, really talking about behavioral health and the fact that it’s OK to have problems. It’s what you do with those problems that’s important,” Bromberg says.
The Army has spent tens of millions of dollars in a long-term study of suicide, teaming with the National Institutes of Health, and has developed a comprehensive program of instilling emotional resilience in soldiers.
Suicide researchers say the decline may be the inevitable result of the nation ending involvement in one war in Iraq and winding down its role in another in Afghanistan.
“I get the sense when I work with military people now, they just don’t seem as burnt out as they used to be,” says Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies. “I mean there was a while there, they were just driven into the ground, even if they’d not been deployed, it was just keep going more, more, more, more.”
Bromberg agrees. “I think we’d be naive to think that this period of stress and strain doesn’t impact families and soldiers in some way,” he says.
Scientists may never know precisely what led to a steep rise in suicides that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described as an epidemic.
Many agree it was fueled by the cumulative strain of fighting two wars at once, an unprecedented demand on an all-volunteer force in which family separations, multiple deployments and combat exposure became a way of life for years.
During periods of weeks or months, more troops were dying by their own hand than were killed in combat, according to military data.
The Army’s many suicides drove up totals for the entire military, leading to a record 351 such deaths among active-duty troops in 2012 — the deadliest suicide year on record for U.S. forces. The subsequent decline in suicides for the Army last year appeared to have the same effect, pushing down total Defense Department suicide numbers for 2013.
Though the Pentagon has not released its 2013 final figures, internal documents show 284 actual and presumed suicides among active-duty troops for the year through Dec. 15, a pace that would leave it significantly lower than 2012 suicides.Even as these deaths among active-duty soldiers declined last year, deaths among those on inactive status — members of the National Guard or reserve who were not called into active duty — remained at record levels.
The Army reported a record 151 suicides among these “citizens soldiers,” whose only contact with the Army are drills one weekend a month and two weeks of training each year. That’s an increase from 140 suicides in this group of soldiers in 2012.
The 150 suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2013 is the lowest number for that service branch since 2008. About one in five of those suicides last year were by soldiers who had never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Army figures.
By Gregg Zoroya
Published: January 31, 2014