Since 9/11, an estimated 7,057 service members have died during military operations. In the same time period, an estimated 30,177 service members and veterans have died due to suicide, based on data from Brown University’s costs of war project. The true number of deaths is no doubt higher, due to suicides among Reserve and National Guard personnel (which amount to about 2,800 in the last 10 years) not being recorded until 2011, and an underreporting of causes of death among military services that may underestimate the number of suicides by half.

The Department of Defense states that when factoring in the that the military is mostly young and male, the suicide rate of active duty personnel is on par with the national average. Yet, oddly, the department does not provide the per capita statistics for gender or age of service members in their official reports released each year, leading to little to no news reports with that data.

I used the DOD’s manpower data on active-duty personnel from the same month of their last annual report on suicide in 2020 to test their theory. Based on this data and the number of suicide reported, men on active duty had about a per capita suicide rate of about 22 per 100,000 — that's 25 percent percent higher than males in the national population. Women on active duty had a per capita suicide rate of 12 per 100,000; and if one averages the amount of personnel during 2019, which the report covers, the numbers are even worse.

That is 100 percent double the suicide rate of women in the national population. This data was before the COVID-19 pandemic, where the military suicide rate increased by 25 percent while the nation’s suicide rate dropped by 6 percent.

No doubt this is due in part to female personnel taking their own lives after experiencing military sexual trauma. The military’s subpar treatment and respect of military sexual assault victims, both male and female, serves as an horrific example of the failure of its leaders in creating an environment that is safe for service members in all four services.

The DOD notes relationship factors, excessive debt, administrative and legal difficulties or lack of coping skills as risk factors for suicide deaths, while ignoring where the root issues (the military environment that personnel must live in) of those causes may lie. Notably, their reports only briefly mention sexual assault, and the environment that allows it, as relevant factors in these deaths. The creation of this environment starts at the top, with the DOD’s own leadership.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice currently relies on commander discretion in prosecuting sexual assault cases, which has led to failure of trust after years of failures and high-profile cases of sexual assaults on military bases. Survivors of military sexual assault also continue to face uncaring leaders who do not understand their trauma, or actively punish them because of it. Kaylie Harris, the 19-year-old soldier who died by suicide after being allegedly sexually assaulted at a military base in Alaska this May, was failed by a system that did not take steps to separate her alleged attacker from her, and did not properly ensure that her health and welfare were taken seriously. The Army’s own report on the failure of sexual harassment and response program at Fort Hood Texas, where Pfc. Vanessa Guillen was murdered last year, was due to a focus by leaders there on “mission readiness,” not ensuring the safety of soldiers.

The obsession with mission readiness at the cost of everything else starts at the top, and it is what leaders are evaluated on. The sexual assault and prevention program at Fort Hood and bases are oftentimes understaffed or intentionally poorly staffed by units, something that personnel on Fort Hood acknowledged. The program is not part of the readiness, and therefore evaluation, of their organizations, so many leaders choose to minimize the importance of these programs. Women like Kaylie Harris are the victims of these institutional practices and priorities.

Even when offenders are caught, the DOD has had a spotty track record in prosecuting cases. The system continuously inadequately applies equal punishment across the ranks, not only in cases of sexual misconduct, but also in cases of domestic violence. Studies have indicated that the military has a higher rate of domestic violence than the civilian population, which could be the result of the same factors that create the environment for sexual assault.

Although officers and officials at multiple ranks have continuously stated that the culture around seeking mental health treatment has changed and that mental health is a priority, reality does not currently support their argument. It’s hard to take the Pentagon’s claims of taking the issue of sexual trauma or other factors seriously when there have been cases this year when members of an unofficial Army subreddit have had to step up to save service members’ lives after the military’s own official channels for mental health help were not even operational.

There are concrete steps the DOD can take to reduce the risk of suicide among service members. The first would be addressing sexual trauma within the ranks, which due to recent cases, has been taken up by members of congress after multiple failures in the services. One step towards this would be to release the demographic per capita numbers in the DOD’s next annual report on suicide, which is due within the next month. It’s hard to identify issues if reporting clouds visibility of them. Another would be making sexual assault the top priority in the military, instead of “readiness."

The second is to put mental health programs into place that have already been proven to work. There have been examples in the past 20 years that have shown that when high ranking leaders get involved and care, the stigma around mental health will start to dissipate and by extension, suicide rates will decrease. Unfortunately, these ideas are continually not expounded upon by the DOD, even as officials praise those personnel who made a difference.

Totally eliminating suicide in the military is impossible. But even reducing it by 50 percent would save thousands and in time, tens of thousands of lives.

Daniel Johnson served as an infantry officer and journalist with the United States Army in Iraq during 2016, and is a graduate student at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the author of a book on his unit’s experience in the war against ISIL, #Inherent Resolve.

Published on Aug 19, 2021