Military affairs beat: Suicide stats reflect stubborn problem

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2012 - 7:42 PM

The Army released its 2011 suicide figures last week. Based on the media response, tracking one of the military's most pressing problems remains muddled.

The online headline of the New York Times was: "Active-Duty Army Suicides Reach Record High." CNN reported: "General says Army suicides have largely 'leveled off.'" USA Today said: "Army suicide rates decline for first time in 4 years."

Even as the Army has begun enormous efforts to address the problem, the numbers indicate that suicides among active-duty soldiers hit another record in 2011, climbing to 164, compared to 159 in 2010 and 162 in 2009. If Guard and Reserve members who are not on active duty are included, there was a slight decrease, a change in the pattern from previous years.

The U.S. military has launched itself into prevention programs, focusing on the concept of resilience. Among active-duty and Guard and Reserve components, it has instituted programs to identify markers for trouble, such as failed relationships, work problems and pending legal issues. The issue hits particularly close to home for members of Minnesota's National Guard, which has led the country in the number of suicides in its ranks.

A report, "Generating Health and Discipline in the Force," talks about the special problems facing Guard and Reserve members, citing the "on-again, off-again effect of repeated mobilizations" that, coupled with a poor economy at home, is a double whammy to citizen soldiers.

As the military often does, the Army presented an interesting perspective on the numbers. The report said stress from 10 years of war and repeat deployments may have reached a generational peak, "which, if not for the Army suicide prevention efforts, may have potentially doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled the Army's current suicide rates."

The Army noted that the true effect of its prevention efforts is impossible to determine.

mbrunswick@startribune.com 612-673-4434

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