WASHINGTON — Suicides in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 last year, exceeding American combat deaths in Afghanistan, and some private analysts are predicting the dark trend will grow worse this year.
The Pentagon has struggled to deal with the suicides, which Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force.
Pentagon figures obtained Monday by the Associated Press show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before and exceeded the Pentagon’s internal projection of 325. Last year’s total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001 and exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, by the AP’s count.
“This is an epidemic that cannot be ignored,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat. “As our newest generation of service members and veterans face unprecedented challenges, today’s news shows we must be doing more to ensure they are not slipping through the cracks.”
Military suicides began rising in 2006 and soared to a then-record 310 in 2009 before leveling off for two years. It came as a surprise to many that the numbers resumed climbing this year, given that U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over and the Obama administration is taking steps to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
“Now that we’re decreasing our troops and they’re coming back home, that’s when they’re really in the danger zone, when they’re transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves,” said Kim Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself between Iraq deployments in 2005.
The Army, by far the largest of the military services, had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops last year at 182, but the Marine Corps, whose suicide numbers had declined for two years, had the largest percentage increase — a 50 percent jump to 48. The Marines’ worst year was 2009’s 52 suicides. The Air Force recorded 59 suicides, up 16 percent from the previous year, and the Navy had 60, up 15 percent.
All of the numbers are tentative, pending the completion later this year of formal pathology reports on each case.
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