October 31, 2011

Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide

Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide, by Dr. Margaret Harrell, CNAS Senior Fellow and Director of the Joining Forces Initiative, and Nancy Berglass, CNAS Non-Resident Senior Fellow, suggests that the health of the all-volunteer force is dependent on our nation’s ability to take care of its service members and veterans.

According to the report, "Suicide among service members and veterans challenges the health of America’s all-volunteer force." From 2005 to 2010, service members took their own lives at a rate of approximately one every 36 hours. This tragic phenomenon reached new extremes when the Army reported a record-high number of suicides in July 2011 with the deaths of 33 active and reserve component service members reported as suicides. Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 18 veterans die by suicide each day. Yet the true number of veterans who die by suicide, as Harrell and Berglass point out, is unknown. As more American troops return home from war, this issue will require increasingly urgent attention.

Harrell and Berglass present a number of concrete policy recommendations that will help reduce the number of service member and veteran suicides, including establishing an Army unit cohesion period; removing the congressional restriction on unit leaders discussing personally owned weapons with service members; and increasing coordination between the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to improve the analysis of veteran suicide data. Despite the efforts of the DOD and the VA to address military suicide, obstacles remain, and policymakers must bring a renewed urgency to their efforts if America is to both honor the sacrifices made by the all-volunteer force and protect its future health and ability to defend the nation.

*Please note, an earlier version of this report contained an error on page 1. It has been corrected to read: "Moreover, although only 1 percent of Americans have served during the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States."


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