The number of military suicides so far this year is running slightly higher than for the same time frame last year, but without the context of force reductions, the raw data say little about current suicide trends in the armed services.
This year, the four services have seen 162 confirmed or suspected suicides — 151 among active-duty troops and 11 among reserve component members — through July 20, according to Pentagon documents obtained by Military Times.
The Navy and Air Force both had an uptick in suicides, while the Army and Marine Corps are down from their 2013 year-to-date numbers.
In the same period last year, there were 160 total deaths by suicide across the four services. In 2012, there were 209.
While the numbers appear to signal a reversal of the decline in military suicides in 2013 compared to the year before, the breadth of the change, if any, will be determined when the Defense Department calculates the current incidence rate of suicide — a measure that weighs the number of suicides against the number of personnel serving.
The most recent rates published by the Pentagon show that in 2013, the incident rate among active duty personnel was 18.7 per 100,000. In 2012, it was 22.7 per 100,000 — the highest it has been since DoD began closely tracking the data in 2002.
A current incidence rate was not included in the 2014 year-to-date suicide report. The figure is challenging to calculate, since it is based on the number of troops on active duty as well as the number of mobilized Guard and reserve troops — numbers that fluctuate as service members train and move between active and reserve status.
Of the 162 confirmed or suspected suicides to date this year for both the active and reserve components, the service breakdown is Army, 71; Air Force, 34; Marine Corps, 21; and Navy, 36.
This time last year, the figures were Army, 85; Air Force, 25; Marine Corps, 26; and Navy, 24.
The Navy is well ahead of its pace at this time last year and in fact is already closing in on its total of 43 for all of 2013.
Pentagon Suicide Prevention Office Director Jacqueline Garrick said in an interview last week that one death by suicide is “one too many.”
Her office, which has reviewed the Defense Department’s various suicide prevention programs, activities and initiatives, is focusing on improving those that target specific populations of service members, she said.
Garrick noted that the Vets4warriors program, a peer-to-peer counseling program that went nationwide this year, has gained favor among troops, as have pilot programs targeting mental-well being and suicide prevention in remote and rural areas where reserve and Guard members live.
“We are taking a stance where we are better aligning the risk and protective factors of suicide with the programs we offer,” Garrick said.
She warned against drawing any correlation between the Pentagon’s suicide prevention programs and the dip in deaths from 2012 to 2013, but added that officials remain “cautiously optimistic.”
“The correlations are tricky because suicide is so complex. The causes of suicide are as unique as the individuals who serve in the military,” Garrick said.
The Pentagon last week released its suicide data for 2013, showing a 6 percent decline from 2012.
Last year, 479 service members — 259 active-duty troops, 87 Reserve members and 133 National Guard members — died by suicide, down from 319 active-duty members and 203 non-activated Reserve and Guard members in 2012.