We expect U.S. military personnel — soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and seamen — to be heroes, whether they’re directly involved in the most vicious conflicts or working behind the scenes far from harm’s way.
Some may dispute that contention, but be honest. The enormous respect and gratitude deservedly granted to those who have served or are serving tag them as something special.
We offer no criticism of that attitude — there are too many examples of ordinary people doing supernatural things on the battlefield, even if they protest afterward that they were “just doing my job” — but we’ll mention something that often gets overlooked. These heroes are human beings, subject to the same flaws, frailties, imperfections and pressures as the rest of us who belong to that species.
As human beings, they also possess breaking points that have been reached too many times in recent years.
Last fall, the Department of Defense released its annual Suicide Report, which included data for 2018. It found that 541 active duty or reserve military personnel killed themselves that year, an increase of 5.9% from 2017 and 12.2% from 2016.
Sixty percent of those suicides — 325 — involved active duty personnel, which signaled a 34% increase since 2013.
Which service branch saw the most significant increase? Not the Army or the Marines, who have carried the heaviest combat loads in the close to 20-year war on terror in the Middle East, but the Air Force. It had 84 active duty suicides in 2018, a 25% increase over the 60 recorded in 2017 and, according to data cited by the Associated Press, its highest one-year total ever. There’s talk that the 2019 numbers may be worse.
Air Force officials say the situation “has the full attention of leadership,” same as the other branches. Unfortunately, it’s not a problem that can be fixed with a battle plan or military tactics, because it’s part of a broader trend.
The suicide rate for all Americans has climbed by 35% since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase from 2017 to 2018 was small, just two-tenths of a percent, but the arrow remains pointed upward.
Also, statistical research published by the American Medical Association has shown that combat deployment isn’t the major reason for the recent surge in military suicides, nor in any prevalence of suicide in other U.S. military conflicts. The researchers are working to identify the factors behind the trend.
We’ll predict that, again, since human beings are involved, it’s likely to mirror what’s happening with those who don’t wear this country’s uniform. It’s a problem that, as an Air Force official observed, “without easily identifiable solutions.”
So what can you do? If a family member, friend or acquaintance is in the military, and something doesn’t seem right — and we’re quite aware that the first indication of a problem often is the act of suicide itself — be proactive.
Make them aware that there are resources available, like the Military Crisis Line (800-273-8255, press 1; or text 838255) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).
Most importantly, make sure they know there’s no shame in heroes asking for help.
An editorial from the Gadsden Times, Alabama.