The Department of Defense released a new report on April 25 estimating that 522 service personnel committed suicide in 2012. And Air Force officials testified April 10 to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the worrisome trend continues to build in 2014.
"We are in the middle of a spike right now," Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh testified at an April 10 Armed Services Committee hearing. "We have had 32 suicides inside the Total Air Force this calendar year."
In addition, Admiral William McRaven, chief of Special Operations Command, said suicides are occurring at record numbers among his forces, which include Navy SEALS and Army Rangers.
On Friday afternoon at 2:51 p.m., the news desk received the following news release from Sen. Joe Donnelly's office. Indiana's junior senator is a Democrat.
*** FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE ***
April 25, 2014
Indianapolis, Ind. - Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, responded to the Department of Defense (DoD) release of a report today on suicides in the military in 2012. DoD is using an updated method of tracking suicides and, with this new method, determined that 319 active component servicemembers, 73 selected reserve servicemembers, and 130 National Guard members committed suicide in 2012.
That is a total of 522 servicemembers who took their own lives in 2012. A key factor in this elevated figure is DoD's new attempt to accurately account for suicides among members of the National Guard and Reserves, who have historically been undercounted. Previously, DoD reporting tallied suicides among those members of the National Guard and Reserves who were activated at the time of their death, leaving out many who took their lives before or after mobilization. The new figures give a more accurate count and highlight disturbing growth in suicide rates among men and women serving in the Reserve Components.
Donnelly said, "Any servicemember lost to suicide is one too many. These statistics are staggering and warrant a strong response. While there is no one way to prevent suicide, we need to start focusing on consistent mental health screening across the branches because many servicemembers are not being reached outside of the deployment cycle. The Guard and Reserve and those who are serving here at home must have access to mental health screening and resources.
"I recently heard from leaders of the Air Force that they've seen a large 'spike' in the number of suicides thus far in 2014. We obviously have a lot of work to do to make sure that screening is reaching each member of our Armed Services - active duty, Guard, and Reserve - and that we equip these men and women to seek out the help they need once they are veterans."
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 10, 2014, Donnelly questioned Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James about suicide in the military. Each noted a recent "spike" in Air Force suicides.
General Welsh said, "We are in the middle of a spike right now. We have had 32 suicides inside the Total Air Force this calendar year."
Secretary James said: "We are undergoing a spike and the question is why. There doesn't seem to be a reason per se for it, but we're not finished asking the questions and we want to try to get to bottom of it. Maybe the mental health assessment idea you just put forth, which is being done elsewhere in the military that is something we ought to at least consider to beef up our program. As the Chief [of Staff General Welsh] said we do have a very good program but you can't argue with the statistics and at the moment our statistics are up and that's worrying."
Last week, Admiral William McRaven, who leads the Special Operations Command, said that U.S. special operations forces, including elite Navy SEALS and Army Rangers are committing suicide at record levels. McRaven said that the number of special operation forces committing suicide has been at record highs the past two years, conceding, "And this year, I am afraid we are on a path to break that. My soldiers have been fighting now for 12, 13 years in hard combat. Hard combat. And anybody that has spent any time in this war has been changed by it. It's that simple."
Donnelly's first bill in the U.S. Senate was the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevent Act of 2013, named after a Farmland, Indiana native and member of the Indiana National Guard who took his own life in 2009. The bill would establish a pilot program in each of the military services and reserve components to integrate comprehensive annual mental health assessments into servicemembers' Periodic Health Assessments and identify risk factors for mental illness so that servicemembers can access preventative care. He is continuing to work on this effort to improve and strengthen it in advance of this year's National Defense Authorization Act.