More American soldiers took their own lives last year than were killed in combat in Afghanistan.
That startling statistic should intensify efforts to explain why so many suicides are occurring in the military. Even as that answer is being sought, the situation begs for more mental health counselors and efforts to encourage potentially suicidal soldiers to seek help.
Recently obtained figures show there were 349 suicides in 2012 among active-duty troops, up from 301 the previous year. It was the highest number since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001, and exceeded the Pentagon's projection of 325. According to the Associated Press, 295 Americans died in Afghanistan last year.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the suicides an epidemic. It's good that the military recognizes the depth of the problem. Now the Pentagon must find out how to address a situation that could get worse as the war winds down and soldiers prepare for a return to civilian life.
American soldiers have been under tremendous stress from repeated and extended tours of duty for more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have problems related to the families and jobs they left at home, as well as legal and financial issues.
Among active-duty troops, the Army had the most suicides last year, 182. After a decline for two years, the Marine Corps had the largest percentage increase - a 50 percent jump to 48 suicides. The Marines' worst year was 2009, when they had 52 suicides.
The Air Force had 59 suicides last year, up 16 percent; and the Navy had 60, up 15 percent from the previous year. All of the branches' numbers are preliminary; some cases could change pending pathology reports.
Even though civilians commit suicide at a higher rate, the military numbers are troubling. The alarming trend began in 2006 and reached a then-record 310 suicides in 2009. The rate leveled off for two years, but spiked in 2012.
Some soldiers may be experiencing anxiety over the prospect of leaving the military and returning home to an uncertain future. The demands on them and their families can be overwhelming. This country owes its military men and women an answer to why so many are committing suicide before it's too late.