US Military suicides

Shocking numbers in one way:

In 2012, for the first time in at least a generation, the number of active-duty soldiers who killed themselves, 177, exceeded the 176 who were killed while in the war zone. To put that another way, more of America\’s serving soldiers died at their own hands than in pursuit of the enemy.

Across all branches of the US military and the reserves, a similar disturbing trend was recorded. In all, 349 service members took their own lives in 2012, while a lesser number, 295, died in combat.

Shocking though those figures are, they are as nothing compared with the statistic to which Busbee technically belongs. He had retired himself from the army just two months before he died, and so is officially recorded at death as a veteran – one of an astonishing 6,500 former military personnel who killed themselves in 2012, roughly equivalent to one every 80 minutes.

It\’s also testament to the incredible performance improvements in military medicine. Wounded who, 30 years ago, would definitely die and 10 years ago probably to possibly would now survive.

Leaving aside the human tragedy of this all and just thinking about the numbers. Is this suicide rate actually any different from what used to happen in the past? That is, are we looking at about the normal rate for combat veterans over the last, say, 50 or 80 years? The total number rising because the number of those who have seen combat has risen?

Or is the rate rising as a result of something about modern combat/modern military being different in some manner?

For example, I would assume that the last decade has hugely increased the portion of the military that has seen combat. Gulf I and II saw certain regiments/divisions seeing it, but I would imagine that Iraq post Gulf II and Afghanistan has led to the portion rising to at or perhaps beyond the Vietnam rate of exposure to combat. And I think, but don\’t know, that the size of the military has increased in recent years. Even if not as the total establishment number, the passage of people through it has meant a larger number of people all told.

Which leaves a little statistical puzzle.

And one other thing. That total suicide rate doesn\’t actually look all that far out of line with the general population. It\’s 12 per 100,000 across the total population. Total US military is 2.3 million or so (inc National Guard units and yes, they do see active service these days). We\’d expect, from those national numbers, 276 suicides in that number of people. 349 committed suicide. Adjust a bit for the preponderance of young men in the military, the group which usually has a higher suicide rate, and are we actually seeing anything out of the ordinary?

Anyone know?

15 comments on “US Military suicides

  1. Interesting thing in the non-suicide stats. 295 died in combat, of which 176 were on active duty.

    That’s a very high proportion of soldiers being killed in combat while not on active duty.

    Do they have a lot of training deaths (to the point that training kills two thirds as many as the enemy) or is there an odd definition of active service?

  2. I would have thought being ‘in combat’ was active service! Perhaps they have got them the wrong way around: 295 died in active service, of which 176 were in combat.

  3. Ah, I didn’t read the article, only the comment. The 176 refers to soldiers, the 295 to all services and reservists. What is the definition of soldiers? Does it include naval and air force combat personnel? Sappers, bomb disposal, etc?

    Anyway, would it be better if, say, 300 committed suicide and 10,000 were killed in combat?

    This is a great example of the sort of people who can find bad news in good if the political motivation is there. For example, I don’t have the figures but I would imagine, compared to 200 hundred years ago, more people die in middle age than in the first 6 months of their life? Crisis and news story, or good news?

  4. As for the 6,500 suicides of former military personnel, the highest suicide rate in the US is among white males over 65. Given the increases in life expectancy there are more males in that age group than ever before and a good proportion will be veterans (Korea, Vietnam etc.)

  5. 3 year-long tours in 6 years service is a lot of time away. Can’t have been nice. It’s about double my rate back when I was regular (and I wasn’t in combat.)

    But the numbers and the graphics are confusing. 176 soldiers died – but there were 182 Army deaths? Is that 176 ORs and 6 officers? 176 regular and 6 NG?

    The blue line on the graph indicates some 310 combat deaths, not the 295 quoted. I think oor-Eoin must be temping in their graphics department …

    “Soldiers” would normally not include Navy or Air Force. Depending on the ignorance of the journalist, it might include Marines (who wouldn’t include themselves!) Sappers are usually army. Bomb disposal should be sorted by service.

  6. Shows that stats are useless. They can be used to show any point even when the truth is something totally different. There is also no point in gathering them as they can be twisted in so many ways. What have we really learned from these figures – nothing. So we might as well not gather the data. Modern society is based so much on information that we think we need to quantify and measure everything. But in the majority of cases it doesn’t make any difference.

  7. Another factor is that military people have more access to guns than the general population (even in the US!) Suicide attempts with guns are much more likely to succeed than other methods, such as overdosing on tablets.

  8. According to the CDC the suicide rate for males aged 25-64 was 25.37 per 100,000 in 2009. You would have to know the age and sex composition of the forces in detail, but looks like soldiers are less likely to commit suicide than civilians. These stories come out periodically . They fit a popular narrative so they get a hearing no matter how bad the analysis is.

  9. The separation of deaths into suicides and combat deaths is problematic. If you’re on active service and want to commit suicide, you don’t need to do anything except start taking big risks when out on patrol or whatever.

  10. Dave, so a potential suicide on active duty who fails in their act becomes a hero. We see it as taking risks, they see it as attempting suicide. Most suicides are attempts at getting attention, well being a hero gets you lots of attention. Should we look at heros in a different light now?

  11. The suicide rate for veteran works out from the 6500 as 30.23 per 100,000 . Given that veterans are over 90% male this is not remarkably different than the civilian population.

  12. rob (#3) makes a good point about people twisting statistics to look for bad news.

    The one that always annoys me is that the biggest killer of young men is car accidents. Well, if that’s your biggest problem, a good dose of bubonic plague would soon solve it.

  13. I can’t find the link but I’ve read somewhere that a high proportion of the suicides had not seen any operational service.

  14. SBML: my military friends and acquaintances tell me that this is already the case. Outside of D-Day situations, the top brass are keen to ensure that people who take reckless risks and endanger their own lives get psychiatric help. As you’d expect this isn’t met with complete compliance by the boys on the ground, particularly when the risky chap in question solely endangers himself rather than everyone around him.

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