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U.S. Department of Defense

Exclusive: Pentagon data reveals US soldier more likely to die by suicide than in combat

WASHINGTON − U.S. soldiers were almost nine times more likely to die by suicide than by enemy fire, according to a Pentagon study for the five-year period ending in 2019.

The study, published in May by the Defense Health Agency, found that suicide was the leading cause of death among active-duty soldiers from 2014 to 2019. There were 883 suicide deaths during that time period. Accidents were the No. 2 cause with 814 deaths. There were 96 combat deaths.

The suicide figures from 2019 predate some Army and Pentagon initiatives to combat suicide, including a workforce that addresses harmful behaviors like alcohol abuse that can contribute to deaths by suicide. In addition, combat deaths declined from 31 in 2014 to 16 in 2019 as deployments to war zones in the Middle East and Afghanistan decreased.

Suicide, meanwhile, has increased among active-duty soldiers, according to figures obtained by ӣƵ. So far in 2024, 55 soldiers have died by suicide.

Army officials, in an interview with ӣƵ, pointed to increasing rates of suicide in U.S. society as whole that are reflected in their ranks. They also talked about new tactics they're using to reduce suicide.

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More:Alaska's army bases see glimmer of hope after 'horrifically high' suicide rates among soldiers

The rate of suicide, measured by deaths per 100,000 soldiers, generally has been climbing since 2019 when the rate was 28.8 per 100,000. For active-duty soldiers in 2020, the rate was 36.2 per 100,000. It declined in 2021 to 36.1, and in 2022 it fell to 28.9. In 2023, it jumped to 36.6. In 2024, the rate is 31.8 through most of May, according to figures obtained by ӣƵ.

For all Americans, the rate of suicide has climbed 37% since 2000. In 2021, the last year of available data, the rate per 100,000 was 14.1.

The Army’s struggle to curb suicide grew especially acute in Alaska during the study’s timeframe and after.

At Fort Wainwright in Alaska’s isolated, frigid interior, 11 soldiers died by suicide between January 2014 and March 2019. That spike alarmed Army officials, and a commission examining the problem called for spending more than $200 million for better barracks for soldiers and sheltered garages to maintain their combat vehicles.

Military spending didn't stop the suicide problem

The spending didn’t stem the problem. There were eight suicide deaths among soldiers posted to Alaska in 2019, seven in 2020 and a horrific 17 in 2021. Following a ӣƵ investigation, the Army, prodded by Congress, surged dozens of mental health professionals to the state and suicides dropped to six in 2022.

More:An Alaskan army base is the epicenter of military suicides. Soldiers know why

Last September, acting on recommendations made by an independent commission studying suicide in the military, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin outlined the Pentagon's strategy to prevent more deaths. It includes improving access to mental health counseling and incentives for safe storage of firearms, which account for 70% of suicide deaths.

The Pentagon plans to hire as many as 2,000 people over the next four years to focus on preventing problem behaviors, like excessive drinking, that can lead to suicide and sexual assault. The first members of the Integrated Primary Prevention Workforce were deployed to bases at highest risk last year.

Gunshot wounds accounted for 65% of the Army's suicide deaths, according to the study.

"Evaluation of various public health suicide prevention programs and services, and a greater emphasis on firearm storage and safety, may be needed to reduce suicide," the study's authors noted.

The Army has been seeking to normalize safe storage of guns among soldiers a reflex, like fastening a seat belt, said Carrie Shult, the Army's suicide prevention program manager. Secured guns are less likely to be seized by a solider having a suicidal impulse.

At Fort Cavazos in Texas, a program that emphasizes regular conversations by leaders and peers about gun storage has resulted in better planning by soldiers, Shult said.

"We've seen some great initial results from that project and we're also looking to extend that in other areas," she said.

The Army's approach to suicide prevention has evolved over the past four years, said Col. Kevin Goke, an official in the Army's directorate of Prevention, Resilience & Readiness. The focus has shifted from suicide as solely a mental-health problem to addressing a variety of stresses on soldiers, including financial woes and broken relationships that can contribute to a crisis.

Training has also aimed at reducing the stigma about seeking help when needed, he said. Soldiers have been taught to ask one another if they're thinking of hurting themselves.

"As a behavioral health provider, it's a very easy question for me to ask," Goke said. "But we triggered that question down to a healthy-hand approach that folks are willing to ask that question."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or visiting 988lifeline.org

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