More soldiers took their own lives than died in combat during 2012, new Department of Defense figures show. The Army's suicide rate has climbed by 9 percent since the military branch launched its suicide-prevention campaign in 2009.
Through November, 177 active-duty soldiers had committed suicide compared to 165 during all of 2011 and 156 in 2010. In all of 2012, 176 soldiers were killed in action -- all while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom, according to DOD.
Army suicides have increased by at least 54 percent since 2007 when there were 115 -- a number the Washington Post then called "an all-time record." An Army spokesman said Wednesday it is uncertain if 177 marks a new annual high (with December numbers still to come), or if suicides have ever outpaced combat deaths in a single year, because the Army has not always tracked suicides.
Some Army families who recently lost members to suicide criticize the branch for failing to aggressively shake a culture in which soldiers believe they'll be deemed weak and denied promotion if they seek mental health aid. They also blame Army leaders for focusing more heavily on weeding out emotionally troubled soldiers to artificially suppress the branch's suicide stats versus embracing and helping members who are exhibiting clear signs of trouble.
Furthermore, in September, two U.S. lawmakers pressured the Pentagon to immediately use unspent money specifically appropriated to the agency to help slow the suicides within the military.
"The Pentagon hasn't spent the money that it has for suicide prevention for this year -- and that money wasn't nearly enough money to reach all the soldiers who need help. Now we are hearing about bureaucratic technicalities at the Pentagon that are preventing them from acting. This is unconscionable," Rep. McDermott said. "The Pentagon is funded to help soldiers and needs to do much more on the epidemic of suicides."
But the Department of Defense contends that anti-suicide programs installed throughout the armed services soon will curb military suicides -- and that such initiatives already have helped douse mental-health stigmas.
"We have seen several programs that we are optimistic are going to start making a dent in this issue," said Jackie Garrick, acting director of the DOD suicide prevention office. "We've asked all of the services to use the same messaging, the same talking points. So the Army, included in that, is trying to adapt and promote those same messages because we realize that this is an across-the-board problem."
The Army could not provide a suicide-prevention officer to comment, but an Army spokeswoman did forward NBC News a link to the "Army Suicide Prevention Program."
Within that initiative, soldiers are taught to "Ask, Care, and Escort" any Army buddy who mentions considering suicide, to usher them to behavioral-health provider, chaplain, or a primary-care provider, and to "never leave your friend alone." The U.S. military also installed a prevention "lifeline:" 1-800-273-TALK.
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