Preventable tragedies

By The Mercury

To its credit, the U.S. military has taken a number of measures in recent years to prevent personnel from committing suicide. Unfortunately, those steps have not yet had the hoped-for impact.

The Army reported last week that 32 soldiers took their own lives in July. That it is the most in a single month since the Army began gathering data two years ago — exceeding the 31 Army suicides in June 2010 — only compounds the tragedy. Last month, 22 of the suicide victims were active-duty soldiers and 10 were reservists.

The trend is similarly tragic. In 2010, 301 soldiers — active duty, reserves and National Guard — committed suicide compared to 242 in 2009. That’s an increase of about five a month. (The suicide rate in the U.S. Marine Corps resembles the Army’s.) What’s more, veterans are committing suicide at the rate of more than 15 a day.

The reasons for the alarming number of suicides are easier to identify than they are to deal with. Multiple and extended combat deployments have burdened individual soldiers and families down with immeasurable amounts of physical and emotional stress. Those are among the effects of a decade of continuous warfare.

It’s not surprising that post-traumatic stress disorders afflict one in five returning soldiers; nor, lamentably, is it a surprise that only about half of those who suffer from such disorders seek assistance. Many soldiers worry about what seeking treatment might do to their careers or their reputations, which can exacerbate the stress.

Although it was slow to recognize the problem, the military has taken the initiative in the last few years to help soldiers cope with stress in combat and in their private lives.  Acting on the findings of a 2010 Pentagon report, the Department of Defense has sought to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health treatment and expanded mental health programs; it has added hundreds of mental health and substance abuse counselors nationwide. And stung by criticism after a former policy was made public, the White house has said the president will now send letters of condolence to the families of troops who commit suicide in Afghanistan or Iraq. That was the right move.

The attention the Defense Department is paying to what seems like an epidemic is notable. The mental health of personnel should be a priority. Troops and their families deserve all the protection the Pentagon can give them.

The best protection would involve fewer and shorter combat deployments that create intolerable stress. And that, in turn, would involve scaling back the wars that have taken such a terrible toll on a tiny fraction of our nation’s citizens.

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