The longer we stay in Iraq, the higher the soldier suicide rate climbs.
March 19th, 2009, marked the 6th anniversary of the war in Iraq.
And this past January, Army officials released data showing that the suicide rate amongst soldiers in the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard reached a 28-year high in 2008.
- At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008, up from 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006.
- There were 20.2 suicides per 100,000 soldiers in 2008, which is higher than the 19.2 suicides per 100,000 civilians that same year.
What’s going on here?
According to most experts, suicide amongst vets is just one symptom of a larger problem:
- A significant number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from serious mental health disorders, most notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- The symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing (a mental replay of a traumatic time or experience), avoidance, numbing and arousal (a heightened sense of being on guard, and difficulty sleeping).
- Without proper care, these vets are at greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse, domestic disputes, and committing suicide.
The Numbers: People
By the Army’s own estimate, 17% of soldiers returning from Iraq have PTSD, and other independent analyses put the figure anywhere between 14 and 20%.
In reality, these numbers are most likely underestimates for two reasons:
- Many returning vets still fear the stigma, and potential discrimination, for speaking up about stress-related symptoms. They do not seek out medical care as a result.
- There is a lag time between experiencing trauma and reporting symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It may be several years before a veteran realizes that he or she is suffering.
- It is estimated that 35% of marines and soldiers who deploy to Iraq will eventually suffer from PTSD.
- In real numbers: about 300,000 soldiers are estimated to have PTSD, and an additional 22,000 soldiers are at-risk for the illness every year that the war continues.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to compare these numbers with statistics from other wars, such as World War (WW) II and Vietnam, because there is not a whole lot of reliable data available.
The methods for identifying PTSD have changed, and more folks are willing to speak up their condition than in the past.
That said, this article suggests that the soldiers returning from Iraq face a higher likelihood of experiencing PTSD symptoms than vets from other wars.
First, advances in medical technology have increased the chances of a soldier surviving a major combat wound. In the past, these same soldiers most likely would have died in the field.
- The ratio of wounded to killed in combat is 8:1 for Iraq, compared with 3:1 for the Vietnam War and 2:1 for WWII.
Now, fortunately, more soldiers are able to come home, but they often face major physical disabilities (as a result of amputations and other surgeries) and mental health issues resulting from their traumatic experiences. And soldiers who sustain a traumatic brain injury such as a concussion (TBI) often display symptoms of PTSD as well.
Second, research has shown that PTSD is linked to high combat exposure, which means that soldiers who are ambushed, shot at, or who witness their colleagues being killed are at-risk. The risk increases the longer a soldier remains in combat.
In the case of Iraq, many soldiers have been asked to serve multiple tours of duty with little rest. Tours have also been extended under a policy known as “stop-loss,” which requires soldiers to stay on tour after their contracted end date has passed.
- As of January, 2009, there were 13,200 soldiers serving beyond the dates written in their enlistment contracts.
So what can be done to better prevent and treat PTSD?
We’re pleased to report that Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced recently that the Army will be phasing out the use of the “stop-loss” policy over the next two years.
- The military has the power to involuntarily extend a serviceperson’s tour beyond the date specified by their enlistment contract. Only the Army has needed to routinely use this policy, sometimes referred to as a “back-door draft,” over the past few years. The policy is used to bolster the number of troops in the field and to place more experienced soldiers with newly arriving units.
High troop retention levels, the faster-than-expected expansion of the army, and the winding down of the surge in Iraq are all reasons why the Army can discontinue its heavy use of this policy by August, said Gates.
In addition, soldiers who are forced to stay on tour under stop-loss after August will begin to receive $500 monthly payments in addition to their monthly pay.
PTSD is treatable, but veterans need access to care as quickly as possible to prevent additional problems from developing, such as suicidal behavior.
Both medication and talk therapy sessions can go a long way towards relieving and ending the symptoms of PTSD.
- Proper PTSD care can lead to complete remission in 30 to 50% of cases. Treatment more than pays for itself within two years by making up for lost productivity, according to a study by the Rand Corporation.
- This article recommends that all soldiers returning from active duty be screened for PTSD, and then given three to six months worth of treatment immediately if they are shown to be suffering from the disorder.
- In reality, only 22% of recent veterans who were thought to be at-risk for PTSD were given a referral for a mental health evaluation.
It also currently takes at least six months, and frequently up to 1 year, for benefit claims to be processed by the Veterans Administration (VA)- which means that veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD must wait before receiving care.
And the treatment given is often inadequate.
- Less than 40% of service members who get a PTSD diagnosis receive mental health services, and
- Only half of recent veterans who received services got adequate care.
- Check out this news clip on PTSD and the VA backlog problem.
In 2008, Congress allotted an additional $50 million for fiscal year 2009 specifically to help the VA speed the processing of disability claims. And just last month, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki pledged to take on the backlog issue by making adjustments to the agency’s 2010 budget.
Plans to prevent and treat PTSD simply cannot wait- and we are heartened to see that officials in both the VA and the Army are committed to moving forward quickly to address this issue.
Remember: More soldiers committed suicide in January than were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For additional information on PTSD and veterans’ health care generally, check out our previous article on this topic, “Shellshocked: Veterans Health Care,” by Emily Cleath.