Nate Evans had three children depending on him and held down a good job running a hyperbaric chamber at a hospital.
But what he really wanted was to go to war.
In 2008, as the U.S. death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan approached 5,000, Evans became a medic in the Navy Reserve and was assigned to a Marine company.
“He wanted in the trenches,” said his wife, Catherine Evans. To her relief, he never deployed to either war.
But that did not save him. Evans, 28, committed suicide last November near his home outside Salt Lake City — one of at least 524 U.S. service members who took their own lives in 2012.
His case was hardly unusual. The most recent Pentagon data show that a slight majority — 52 percent — of troops who have committed suicide while on active duty were never assigned to Afghanistan or Iraq.
The numbers, from the years 2008 to 2011, upend the popular belief that a large increase in suicides over the last decade stems from the psychological toll of combat and repeated deployments to war.
To researchers trying to unravel the causes of the rise, the statistics suggest that the mental health and life circumstances of new recruits are at least as important — and possibly more so — than the pressures of being in the military. It is clear that some enter with a predisposition to suicide and that stressors other than war are pushing them over the edge, experts said.
“A lot of the risk for suicide in the military is the stuff they bring with them,” said Dr. Murray Stein, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Diego, who is studying suicide in the Army.
Among the unanswered questions: Did the type of people volunteering for service change after 9/11, when going to war — and dying — went from being an abstract possibility to a significant risk? One theory is that more recruits have backgrounds and psychological histories that make them prone to suicide.
The Los Angeles Times interviewed relatives and friends of five service members who committed suicide without having gone to Afghanistan or Iraq. All were men who married young. In four cases, their relationships were over or crumbling.
They struggled with the direction of their lives and joined the military in search of purpose or meaning, their relatives and friends said.
And they concealed their psychological problems. Four of the men longed to go to war, and the disappointment of not being sent only heightened a sense of desperation.
For Michael Griffin, enlisting in the Army at age 25 was a last-ditch effort to right his life. A former skinhead, he was struggling to find work, and he and his wife had separated.
“He thought the military would provide structure and allow him to support his son,” said his mother, Cherei Griffin, who now lives in Utah.
He joined at a time when the military had temporarily relaxed its entry standards due to a shortage of volunteers.
On his application, Griffin was less than truthful. He denied having ever taken drugs, which his widow, Megan Griffin, said is untrue, and he failed to disclose his bipolar disorder. The military didn’t learn of his condition until after his suicide.