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DoD reports on suicide in the military

We lose more service members every year to suicide than in combat.

When my husband and I were stationed at Offutt AFB in Nebraska, we attended a luncheon hosted by Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright and his wife. During the Q&A session, one of the airmen asked the chief what operational challenges facing the Air Force worried him the most. He clearly expected an answer involving Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea.

But instead, the chief looked at his wife, and they both said in synchrony: “Suicide.”

That day, I learned about how we lose more airmen to suicide than in combat. Tragically, this is true for all branches of the military.

In September 2019, the Department of Defense (DoD) published its inaugural Annual Suicide Report (ASR). The report presents data on suicide rates among service members and their families, as well as an overview of the DoD’s suicide prevention strategy and future initiatives.

We lost 541 service members to suicide last year. Since the military started tracking these deaths in 2001, the annual rate has only been this high once, in 2012.

This was the first time a DoD report included deaths among military families as well. 186 military spouses and dependents were reported to have died by suicide in 2017.

These numbers scare me. Because these are my friends, my teammates, my neighbors — my stand-in family when my husband deploys. The military is a tight-knit community; when one of us hurts, we all feel the pain.

I’m grateful that the Pentagon is giving this public health epidemic attention and resources. Especially the stand-out leaders like Chief Wright, who have made tackling this issue a focal point of their work. It is important that we do whatever we can to reverse the statistics.

As our community discusses preventive action — from improving access to mental health services, to increasing awareness of how to detect early warning signs — we must also speak honestly about some of the exacerbating factors.

Our military has been fighting a war for over 19 years. Running at such a heightened operational tempo for that long is exhausting, for both service members and their families. If our country is serious about improving outcomes for our those in uniform, that has to include de-militarizing our foreign policy. We can’t keep sending our troops to solve problems that don’t have a military solution.

Democratic presidential candidates have started sharing their plans for how they want to tackle veteran suicide — a group that faces different challenges from currently serving members, but certainly shares some similarities. I can’t say how appreciative I am for the high-profile attention this issue is getting.

I would encourage any policymaker, current and future, to approach military and veteran suicide with the holistic view it deserves. Going to war has consequences. Defunding our State Department has consequences. They’re not always obvious consequences, but they’re very real for those of us who live them.

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