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The New Battle: Combating the Rise of Military Suicides

President Obama has announced that by the end of 2011 every U.S. troop will leave Iraq, ending the eight years of American occupation. While the lasting impact of U.S. involvement will be left for history to judge, the national security implications of U.S. involvement in Iraq continues. Instead of dealing with insurgencies and IED’s, the new threat will be the troop’s transition back to the home front.

An October 2011 report compiled by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide detailed the increasing problem of suicide among active service and veteran military personnel. The report details how over the past ten years, during which there has been continuous active military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous other short operations, military suicides have become increasingly more common. Between 2005 and 2010, an active service member took their own live once every 36 hours. By June 2011, the Army had announced that it already had 33 active or reserve members committee suicide this year. Department of Defense statistics also support the increasing problem. The DOD found an increase from 160 suicides in 2001, the year the “War on Terror” began, to 309 suicides in 2009. This is an increase from a rate of 10.3 suicides per 100,000 troops in 2001 to 18.4 suicides per 100,000 troops in 2009.

Suicides are also a problem after military service ends as well. Even though it is impossible to determine the exact suicide rate among veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has estimated that one veteran dies every 80 minutes by suicide. VA statistics also point out the severity of the problem for veterans. While only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military, veteran suicides represent 20 percent of all suicides in the United States.

The health and wellbeing of American troops is an important part of national security. The fact that an increasing number of service men, as well as veterans choose to take their own lives is a glaring problem and must be taken seriously. It is even more important now that the return of more veterans from Iraq is imminent. These soldiers will be coming home, and preparations must be made to respond to the issues they will be facing. Leo Shane, a Stars & Stripes reporter, warned on NPR’s Tell Me More, that the transition home will have a number of health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries(TBI), which can go on for years. Shane noted that while the operational cost has been about $800 billion so far in Iraq, estimates say “it’ll balloon up to three trillion when you take into account the long term recovery and health costs.”

To help combat military suicides, the CNAS report detailed a number of recommendations for the military, moving forward. This includes:

  1. Ensuring information about a service member’s mental health moves with them to their next duty location

  2. Having unit leaders encourage their unit to complete the Post Deployment Health Assessment truthfully

  3. Ensure that both policy and military culture prohibit hazing

  4. Eliminate the stigma in the military associated with mental health, holding unit leaders accountable for the ridicule someone might face for seeking treatment, and ensure that military funerals are provided to eligible service members who die by suicide.

  5. Urge mental health-care providers to tell unit when a service member is a high risk for suicide.

Current legislation has also been proposed to make sure reservists receive the mental help they need at home. Proposed by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), H. R. 1089, the Sergeant Coleman S. Bean Reserve Component Suicide Prevention Act, would require that someone from the Department of Defense regularly check in on Individual Ready Reserve soldiers and other reservist not

assigned to a unit in order to get them the help they need, should they require it. The House of Representatives has already passed the bill and it now awaits action by the Senate.

With troops due to come home, preparations must be put in place for their continued health and safety. Mental health issues and suicide have long had a stigma in the military, but in looking towards the home front, the government and the military must make sure that those who need help and those who want help, get help, no matter the price.

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