Despair in the ranks: The military seeks to understand soldier suicides

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War is the intentional infliction of harm on the enemy, preferably on the battlefield. It is not supposed to be an opportunity for soldiers to end their own lives.

Yet the suicide rate among American troops who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including those who were never deployed overseas, rose sharply and is the focus of a $65 million research study and survey.

The initial findings, published in three papers in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, are unsettling. Suicide rates among soldiers doubled from 2004 to 2009 during the height of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq to more than 23 per 100,000. In that period 569 soldier deaths were determined to be suicides.

More recently, the soldier suicide rate has dropped back toward 20 per 100,000, close to the civilian rate.

The military is studying several factors in an attempt to explain the increase in suicides. One is the multiple deployments that many members of the all-volunteer force endured. Another is the fact that most of the enlisted men and women with suicidal tendencies exhibited them before joining the military. The new research showed that an estimated one in 10 soldiers qualified for a diagnosis of “intermittent explosive disorder” before ever putting on a uniform.

Today, about a quarter of the soldiers surveyed — twice the rate of the general public — are believed to have at least one psychiatric disorder from a list that includes depression, substance abuse and anxiety. A more troubling statistic may be the rate of explosive rage and impulsiveness — 11 percent among soldiers versus 2 percent among civilians.

Pursuing more research into the causes of anger, despair and suicide in the armed forces is a start, but more important than that will be the willingness of military leaders to do something about it once the factors are identified.

War is hell enough already. It shouldn’t be self-inflicted, too.

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