Attrition: The Fatal Fear Of Change

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April 6, 2016: There were 265 suicide in the American military in 2015, continuing a downward trend (there were 273 in 2014) that began after 2012, when there were 321 suicides. The reasons for the rise and fall of the suicide rates in the military are not what most people think they are. Military statisticians, analysts and epidemiologists (experts on medical statistics) have long sought to convince people outside the military that the rise in suicide rates within the military after 2001 had little to do with the stress of combat and mostly to do with the stresses of military life for all those in uniform during wartime. Recent studies of four million military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan confirmed that there was no relationship between exposure to combat and changes in the suicide rate. What was found was a connection with the percentage of people getting out of the military and their problems with readjusting to being a civilian again. This process takes people from a disciplined lifestyle where everyone feels they are performing an important job, whether or not they are in combat, to a very different environment. Civilian life, in contrast, is more chaotic and seems less meaningful. The impact of that change appears to contribute more to suicides than the stress of being in a combat zone.

For example, among the four million people studied some 32,000 died while in service, about 15 percent because of suicide. Only 22 percent of those who committed suicide had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. A disproportionate number of suicides occurred in the year before leaving the military and investigations of these deaths indicated that most were the result of the psychological stresses associated with leaving the service. Some, not all, of those in combat demonstrated links between combat stress and suicide. In other words, the increased suicides were not concentrated among the combat veterans (who make up less than 15 percent of those in the military) but more evenly distributed among all service personnel. For example, 77 percent of suicides were among troops who had never gone overseas.

The military, especially the army, has long documented all deaths and a 2013 Department of Defense study of all suicides from 2001-2008 (when the heavy fighting in Iraq ended) indicated there was no link between combat stress and suicide. A similar study of 2009-2012 suicides showed the same pattern. Researchers didn’t expect the trends for causes (which remained consistent through 2001-2008) to change. The researchers also point out that the reasons for suicides in the military are quite similar to those for civilian suicides, especially when victims are of the same age, education, and other factors as their military counterparts.

These revelations were not well received by the mass media in the United States, which makes much of the rising suicide rate in military (but pays less attention to rising suicide rates among civilians of the same age and education). The military suicide rate was 9 per 100,000 in 2001 and 17.5 in 2012. This was declared to be a health emergency, and to a certain degree it was. What was missed in all the discussion was the higher suicide rate in the army was far below the rate for civilians of military age (17-60), which was 25 per 100,000.

The fact of the matter is that the military seeks to recruit only people who have an above average ability to deal with stress, especially for the minority headed for combat jobs. It’s not just combat stress the military worries about but stresses suffered by all the troops doing civilian type jobs but often under stressful (combat zone) conditions. It has long been known that most military suicides were men and women who were never in combat or even overseas. But since the military suicide rate is so much lower than those of comparable civilians, it hardly matters. There are so few actual suicides in the military each year that a few soldiers having family problems can cause the rate to seemingly spike. That’s largely what has been happening.

 


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