The Defense Department’s largest-yet study of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans concluded that there is no direct relationship between deployments to the wars and the military’s rising rate of self-inflicted deaths.
Instead, researchers found stronger connections between suicide risk and troops who leave the Armed Forces after less than four years of service or who were kicked out of the military for misconduct.
The analysis, led by researchers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, also notes that the risk increases among service members after they leave uniform, regardless of whether they serve in the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines.
“Suicide is an extremely complex issue, and there is no easy answer. Certainly the temptation as the suicides rose at the same time we were deploying more service members was to assume that was the link,” said Dr. Mark Reger, one of the study’s authors. “This is the largest study to date, and it has a well-done methodology. Overall, deployment is not associated with suicide.”
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The findings come at a time when the South Sound military community continues to grapple with suicide. The year is off to a troubling start; JBLM is investigating four deaths as possible suicides, I Corps spokesman Col. Dave Johnson said.
In the past week, JBLM hosted a memorial service for one veteran Stryker soldier who is believed to have taken his own life, while a funeral took place for another off base, according to local suicide advocacy groups.
The study, published Wednesday by JAMA Psychiatry, cast a wide net in tracking all 3.9 million U.S. military personnel who served in the military between October 2001 and December 2007.
Researchers used civilian records to study suicides among veterans after they separated from the military through 2009. Their databases accounted for almost 32,000 deaths, of which 5,041 were characterized as suicides.
The study was conducted over four years by doctors at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, a Defense Department research arm located at JBLM.
The study did not assess whether particular service members were exposed to direct combat, but rather whether they deployed to the wars. Reger said the team hopes to expand the study with more timely records and to look at subsets of suicide victims, such as service members who suffered wounds in combat.
The suicide rate for service members who had deployed was 18.86 for every 100,000 people. For troops who had not deployed, the rate was 17.78 per 100,000 — a lower number, but the difference is not statistically significant.
Suicides among military service members who left the Armed Forces after less than a year had the highest rate at 48 per 100,000.
Discharge status also appeared to be an indicator of suicide risk. Troops who left the military with honorable discharges had a suicide rate of 22 per 100,000, while those who received lesser discharges committed suicide at a rate of 46 per 100,000.
Military officials have struggled to explain a climbing number of suicides in the ranks that became apparent by 2005, early in the Iraq War. The trend peaked in 2012, when 320 active-duty military service members took their own lives.
Last year, 268 active-duty military service members reportedly committed suicide, according to the Pentagon.
The trend has been difficult to explain because military studies have repeatedly shown a significant number of new troops who have not deployed taking their own lives. Some have speculated that relaxed recruiting standards during the wars could have led the military to enlist troubled troops who may have had life experiences that made them more likely to consider suicide.
A Pentagon report released earlier this year on military suicides in 2013 showed that a third of the cases studied involved troops who had not deployed to a war zone. Half of them had deployed once. A little more than a quarter had deployed two or more times.
The study released Wednesday found that the risk of suicide decreased the longer a military service member spent in uniform. It was highest among troops who left the military before completing a typical four-year enlistment.
It’s possible, the authors note, that military service members who are forced to leave the service before completing an enlistment because of misconduct have mental health conditions that could hinder their ability to find a job. They also may be subject to restrictions on their use of Department of Veterans Affairs services, which would limit their ability to get help from doctors.
Former Army Vice Chief of Staff retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli recently told an audience at a Tacoma conference that the Army spent more than $1 billion trying to understand suicide, head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder between 2007 and 2012.
He wanted more to show for the work, he said, and has since joined a nonprofit group called One Mind that funds research into PTSD and head injuries.
Suicide awareness advocacy lately has shifted to the veteran community. Earlier this year, President Obama signed a law that made suicide prevention services more readily available to veterans by launching pilot programs at the VA. On Wednesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle held a groundbreaking ceremony for a $152 million mental health research facility that is expected to be part of its campus.
Suicide trends at JBLM have mirrored the national military statistics. The number of self-inflected deaths peaked there in 2011 and 2012; 13 JBLM military service members took their own lives in each of those years.
Last year, seven JBLM military service members are believed to have committed suicide, though investigations are not complete in six cases.