Longer Tours Linked to Military Suicides
> 3/19/2009 8:12:55 PM

A top military spokesman recently attributed the statistical spike in suicides among American servicemen and women to the stresses of extended overseas deployments. Testifying before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee in the face of unflattering reports about the military suicide rate, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli and other top officials looked to temper rising concerns about the increasing number soldiers involved in America’s long-running overseas conflicts who’ve taken their own lives.

140 servicemembers committed suicide last year – the highest rate since that number has been recorded. Based on the year to date, 2009 numbers look to be even higher. The subcommittee hearing, ostensibly scheduled to determine the cause of these shocking numbers, facilitated an outpouring of data and sympathy but offered little hope to those who’d like to devise a solution to this ongoing problem. Chiarelli was one of the few willing to offer a policy-based explanation, theorizing that the anxieties of overseas deployments that can last 15 months or longer lead some toward the states of desperation that often precede suicide. Ours is a “tired and stretched force,” he continued.

Chiarelli grew even more specific following Marine Corps Gen. James Amos’ suggestion that "The most likely cause is a failed relationship with a woman," stating that the vast majority of military suicide victims dealt with domestic problems at home that stemmed from their extended deployment. Various financial and legal difficulties also received a share of the blame. Relationship problems may exist for many suicide victims, and extended tours undoubtedly facilitate domestic unrest, but placing all the blame for the suicide spike on broken relationships seems like an easy way to dismiss concerns about a complicated issue.

Hopefully the numbers will improve. Washington recently announced the termination of the controversial stop-loss policy that leads to longer-than-usual tours of duty by forcing service members to remain in the military after their enlistments end. At least 13,000 servicemembers are currently affected by the policy. Unfortunately, this change will not take full effect until 2011.

Chiarelli seems to be taking action to look into the issue, noting that he plans to receive a briefing on the circumstances of each individual suicide. Such efforts are commendable, but no simple solution to this problem currently exists. We're convinced that hiring additional mental health professionals to help the military’s overburdened healthcare staff would be an excellent first step, and most army officials agree. Designing PR campaigns that encourage soldiers to seek treatment might be the most effective follow-up.

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