For the first time ever, the Pentagon is tracking military family suicides

Abbie Bennett
May 10, 2019 - 10:26 am
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Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

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The Department of Defense plans to release its 2018 report on active-duty service member deaths by suicide later this year, and the report will include a first -- a look at deaths by suicide in military families.

With Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs under increasing pressure to address the 20 veterans who die by suicide daily and rising rates of suicide across all branches of the military, DoD leaders laid out their plan at a hearing this week to, for the first time ever, suicides among military family members. 

During a House Oversight and Reform Committee’s national security subpanel hearing, DoD Mental Health Director Navy Capt. Mike Colston and Defense Suicide Prevention Director Karin Orvis told lawmakers the new report intends to establish a more timely release of military suicide rates, which they said are a more accurate measurement than annual totals.

The program is expected to cost $681,600 the first year and $502,200 each subsequent year, the report says.

“It is America’s solemn responsibility to care for our returning heroes and it is more important than ever,” Chairman Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said. “The increase of suicides stands as a stark reminder that we must redouble our efforts.”

Lynch called the number of suicides among service members, veterans and their families a “national emergency” and said active-duty suicides had reached “the highest levels in the last six years.”

In 2018, 321 active-duty troops died by suicide -- 138 soldiers, 68 sailors, 58 airmen and 57 Marines. That’s the same number of troops who died by suicide in 2012, which was the highest number since the military began tracking suicides in 2001.

Terri Tanielian, a Rand Corp. analyst with 25 years experience studying suicide rates among civilians, active-duty and veterans, said the past six years are a “harrowing rallying cry for improved effort in suicide prevention.

“We need to do more than just acknowledge we have a veteran suicide problem,” she said, adding that there are four main focus areas that could help curb suicide: a zero-tolerance for assault and harassment, especially sexual assault; a reduction of overall stress; improvement of the U.S. mental healthcare system; reduction in access to firearms.

Tanielian and panel member Rep. Mark Saulnier, D-Calif., both revealed at the hearing that they lost their fathers who were veterans to suicide.

'It's complicated'

Ranking member Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said his home state has seen two veterans so far this year die by suicide in parking lots of Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers.

“It’s not just a Georgia problem,” Hice said. “This is a widespread issue touching so many. These men and women who volunteer to serve our country and keep us safe and free are suffering. We have to do something.”

Hice said Congress has been increasing its spending to help fight suicide, providing “billions of dollars” to the DoD and VA “yet the number of suicides from veterans from 2008 to 2016 averaged 6,000 per year. That’s a stunning number.”

DoD leaders said the department has taken steps to help troops, including embedding therapists and other mental healthcare providers in units and creating a suicide prevention program in 2017.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., asked DoD representatives if the military’s high deployment tempo led to an increase in service member and veteran suicides.

About 44 percent of active-duty suicides are among troops who have never deployed, DoD representatives said. “There’s not evidence linking increased op-tempo to suicides.”

Research has been split on the connection between suicide and increased deployment rate -- 56 percent of active-duty suicides are among troops who did deploy. “It’s complicated,” Orvis said.

Faith and marijuana

Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., said the rate of military and veteran suicides are connected to “an attack on religion” from VA staff and says meeting the “spiritual needs of warriors can save lives."

“It’s time to put the political correctness aside and address the spiritual needs of our service members. Until we figure this out, we’ll continue to struggle to help,” Green said, adding that he wants a push for faith-based VA programs.

Other Republican members on the House Oversight Committee came out strongly in opposition to medical marijuana use among veterans to treat mental health issues, instead arguing for faith-based support programs.

VA leadership at the meeting agreed. VA leaders also are strongly against medical marijuana for veterans, citing its classification as a Schedule I drug at the federal level.

For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

Follow Abbie Bennett, @AbbieRBennett