In a grim reminder of the devastating effects of war on the human psyche, more US soldiers have ended their lives by committing suicide than those killed in combat missions since 9/11, according to a new study.
“As we come closer to the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we must reflect on the mental health cost of the Global War on Terror,” the study conducted by a leading US university says.
It reveals that more US soldiers have lost their lives to suicide and trauma than in combat since the American military deployment began in Afghanistan. While war and soldiers have found a place on the big screen of Hollywood over the years, it seems that the US military personnel, both serving and veterans, are subjected to mental trauma, fear, sexual harassment, and also a general indifference, leading them in large numbers to end their lives.
The study by Rhode Island-based Brown University, Cost of War Project, used government data, secondary literature, and conducted interviews to highlight the rising number of suicide cases among the US military personnel.
Since the launch of America’s war on terror in 2001, 7,057 service personnel have lost their lives in military combat, according to a report based on the study; 5,116 soldiers took their own lives during the same period.
Between 2011 and 2020, 1,193 suicides were reported among the National Guard service members, while the number was 1,607 for the Reserve component service members. The number of veterans who took their lives is 22,261, which puts the total number of military personnel lives’ lost to suicide at 30,177. This is four times the number of lives lost to combat.
Among service members who have fought in the U.S. post-9/11 wars, four times as many have died of suicide than in combat. A new study from @CostsOfWar documents the mental health crisis resulting from endless wars. Read more at https://t.co/B6WZVBYCJR pic.twitter.com/liJ8l62Kue
— The Costs of War Project (@CostsOfWar) June 21, 2021
A unique feature of this surging number of suicides is that historically the “active-duty personnel usually have lower suicide rates than the general public and these went even lower during wartime in every US conflict before Vietnam”, the study says.
In the US’ war on terror, while the number of combat deaths saw a relative decline from 2007, the number of suicides among active military service people continued to rise.
Our new report details factors unique to the post-9/11 era that lead to a rising number of U.S. soldiers taking their own lives, including a combination of multiple traumatic exposures, chronic pain, and public indifference to these wars. See: https://t.co/B6WZVBYCJR pic.twitter.com/MQX72GDX9R
— The Costs of War Project (@CostsOfWar) June 21, 2021
The increasing rate of suicide for both veterans and active-duty personnel is surpassing that of the general population of the country, reported NBC News, terming the trend “deeply alarming”.
The study points out multiple factors behind the rising number of suicides. The report highlights factors arising from a long sustained armed conflict, like exposure to trauma — physical and moral, stress and fatigue, a strict military culture that does not allow soldiers to portray “weaknesses” and the problem of adjusting to a civilian life eventually.
Then, there are US-specific factors such as the wars America has been engaged in since 2001 and the wide use of improvised explosive devices. According to the author of the report, Thomas ‘Ben’ Suitt, the improvised explosive devices not only caused traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress but also other medical and emotional factors leading to “suicidal ideation”.
His research found many service members unable to receive proper medical treatment, which also made them prone to suicidal behavior.
According to Suitt, “there was a sense that an active service member would rather lie on a screening to be able to stay in the military” and “if they have a traumatic brain injury but no other physical injuries, they downplay the injuries to stay in their career”.
His research revealed that many active service personnel believed that they would lose their sense of identity if they had to leave their military career on medical grounds. In their quest “to do anything to avoid leaving the military”, it seems that many soldiers may have compromised on their mental wellbeing and faced serious consequences in the long run.
Sexual trauma has been reported to be a major factor in pushing the military personnel to severe mental stress and suicidal tendencies. The report mentions that 23 percent of women suffer sexual assault or trauma in the military and that the number may be underestimated, as such incidents mostly go unreported.
A Rand Corporation study highlighted in detail the “rates of sexual assault and misconduct across the army, a chronic problem that military leaders have been struggling to combat”.
The study mentioned by Toronto Star pointed out that female soldiers at the army bases in Texas, Colorado, Kansas and Kentucky underwent sexual assault and harassment than their counterparts at any other posts.
An Initiative For Soldiers
A recent ABC 11 report said that suicide prevention and mental health were the topics for a series being conducted to prevent suicides among armed forces personnel.
The series named “Dragon’s Lair” started by the XVIII Airborne Corps, has panelists comprising unit leaders and experts. In a recent event, the discussion was on suicide and mental health and on “a potential way to address the ever-growing problem in the military”.
Ben Suitt is of the opinion that the indifference of the American public to the US deployment in Afghanistan and elsewhere over the years is one of the reasons for the suicide “numbers to climb”. “For veterans to come home to an uncaring civilian population or to an uncaring public, that must be devastating,” he said.
The study mentioned a 2018 poll, the results of which showed that 42 percent of the American voters were oblivious of the military conflicts in the Middle East or were of the opinion that America’s war on terror was over.
Regardless of the indifference of the American public, Hollywood has tried to focus on post-traumatic disorders that many soldiers tend to suffer from.
The 2014 movie, American Sniper has shown the military career of NAVY SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, and his various vulnerabilities, with his “job slowly wearing him down over time”’, stated Cinemablend. The film vividly portrayed the issues of veterans once they reach home and their problems in adjusting to civilian life.
The 2010 documentary Restrepo showed real-life film-makers along with a platoon posted in Korengal valley of Afghanistan, and “it strips away all of the gung-ho machismo one might expect from a Hollywood film and tells a real story about real Americans fighting for their lives in the closest thing to hell imaginable”.
A 2013 film, Lone Survivor, was based on the true story of Marcus Luttrell, who was part of a four-man team of NAVY SEALs who fought for their lives in the Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.