The US military finished 2018 with a troubling, sad statistic — it experienced the highest number of suicides among active-duty personnel in at least six years.
Without the Army reporting the number of soldiers who died by suicide in the last quarter of 2018, a total of 286 active-duty members took their lives during the year, including 57 Marines, 68 sailors, 58 airmen and, through Oct. 1, 103 Army soldiers.
The deaths equal the total number of active-duty personnel who died by suicide in 2017. With the Army’s fourth-quarter data, could reach the record 321 suicides recorded in 2012.
Suicide continues to present a challenge to the Pentagon and the military services, which have instituted numerous programs to save lives, raise awareness and promote prevention. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, in his 2019 guidance to Marines released Friday, urged them to consider the lasting impact that a “permanent solution to a temporary problem” can have.
“We pride ourselves on building tough, resilient, mission-focused Marines, but we also pride ourselves on taking care of our own. … While there is no dishonor in coming up short or needing help, there is no honor in quitting. MARINES NEVER QUIT ON EACH OTHER!” Neller wrote.
The Corps’ 57 active-duty deaths represent a 25 percent increase from 2017, the highest number of suicides since the service began closely tracking them in 2001.
The Corps also lost 18 Reserve members in 2018 to suicide, second only to 2016, when 19 Marine reservists took their own lives. The service began tracking such deaths in the reserve component in 2012.
The number of Navy suicides — 68 sailors in 2018, up from 65 in 2017 — also was a record and marked a steep increase in the suicide rate among active-duty Navy personnel. Just five years ago, when the Navy recorded 41 suicides among active-duty sailors, the suicide rate was 12.7 deaths per 100,000 sailors; now the rate is more than 20 deaths per 100,000. The Navy is the only service that publishes its data, including calculated suicide rates, online.
According to Air Force officials, 58 active-duty airmen took their lives, while three Reserve members died by their own hands. The number represents a decline from previous years, down from 63 in 2015 and 2017, and 61 in 2016, but is still troubling, said Brig. Gen. Michael Martin, director of Air Force Integrated Resilience.
“We are not satisfied with flat-lined suicide death numbers. The Air Force is dedicated to a comprehensive, leadership-driven strategy with the ultimate goal of supporting airmen and their families early with a robust network and never losing another airman to suicide,” Martin said in a statement.
The Army declined to release its fourth-quarter suicide numbers and referred requests to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which has not published the year-end totals.
DSPO has been without a permanent chief since October 2017, when former director Keita Franklin moved to head the Department of Veterans Affairs’ suicide prevention office.
It last sponsored a conference on suicide prevention in August 2017 and held a suicide prevention month in September 2018, which included hosting an outreach event, attending resource fairs at various locations, and promoting awareness campaigns.
The suicide rates for the military services — data that help Pentagon leadership understand the scope of the issue compared with civilian populations — are not generally published by the individual services. They are calculated based on the number of deaths and population of the services and published in an annual DoD Suicide Event Report, or DoDSER.
The last DoDSER was for 2016, when the rate across all the military services was 21.1 deaths per 100,000 active-duty service members.
Rates for the individual services that year were:
- 19.4 per 100,000, based on 61 deaths, for the Air Force;
- 26.7 per 100,000, based on 127 deaths, for the Army;
- 15.3 per 100,000 based on 50 deaths, for the Navy;
- and 21 per 100,000, based on 37 deaths, for the Marine Corps.
According to the Navy, the adjusted rate of suicide in the civilian population for men of the same age as those who serve in the armed forces, is 26.8 per 100,000.