Suicides in the Army Decline Sharply

2:21 PM, Jan 31, 2014   |    comments
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Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

FORT CARSON, Colo. - Suicides in the Army fell by 19% in 2013, dramatically reversing a rising trend plaguing the Army for nearly 10 years.

There were 150 suicides among soldiers on active-duty status last year, down from a record 185 in 2012, according to Army data. The numbers include both confirmed and suspected suicides.

Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, chief of Army personnel, says he is cautiously optimistic in seeing success in Army programs to avert suicides by giving soldiers coping strategies for keeping a positive or optimistic outlook.

"I'm not declaring any kind of victory here," Bromberg says. "It's looking more promising."

Within the ranks, it has meant that people such as Levertis Jackson, an Afghanistan War veteran whose despair led him several times to try to kill himself, have chosen life.

"It was like before, all my doors were closed, and I'm in a dark room," says Jackson, 41, married and father of four. "(Now) I look for reasons why I need to continue to live."

He left the Army last year after completing an experimental treatment plan at Fort Carson that helps soldiers cope with deadly, self-destructive impulses. Research results slated to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show a promising 60% reduction in suicide attempts by 30 soldiers who participated in the program.

Efforts such as this one conducted by the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah and the University of Memphis are part of complex effort by the Army to reduce suicides. Larger initiatives include years of expanding behavioral health counseling.

"I think we've hit the turning point where people are really, really talking about behavioral health and the fact that it's OK to have problems. It's what you do with those problems that's important," Bromberg says.

The Army has spent tens of millions of dollars in a long-term study of suicide, teaming with the National Institutes of Health, and has developed a comprehensive program of instilling emotional resilience in soldiers.

Suicide researchers say the decline may be the inevitable result of the nation ending involvement in one war in Iraq and winding down its role in another in Afghanistan.

"I get the sense when I work with military people now, they just don't seem as burnt out as they used to be," says Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies. "I mean there was a while there, they were just driven into the ground, even if they'd not been deployed, it was just keep going more, more, more, more."

Bromberg agrees. "I think we'd be naive to to think that this period of stress and strain doesn't impact families and soldiers in some way," he says.

Scientists may never know precisely what led to a steep rise in suicides that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described as an epidemic.

Many agree it was fueled by the cumulative strain of fighting two wars at once, an unprecedented demandon an all-volunteer force in which family separations, multiple deployments and combat exposure became a way of life for years.

During periods of weeks or months, more troops were dying by their own hand than were killed in combat, according to military data.

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