U.S. soldiers patrol the city of Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, in May 2003. (Ahmed Al-Rubaye/AFP)
One of the first comprehensive efforts to explain record suicides among soldiers during and after their deployments in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan finds an indirect link between deployment, combat and self-destructive urges, according to a paper published Thursday.
The two scientists who conducted the study — one of them a former Army research director — argue that high rates of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder flowing out of the combat experience can lead to suicidal behavior.
The illnesses can lead to a sense of burdening others and social isolation. Add to this loss of personal relationships a familiarity with firearms, and the resulting toxic stew can drive suicides among troops and veterans.
The paper published online in Current Psychiatric Reports surmises that this could help explain an astonishing rate of 22 veterans committing suicide each day, as estimated by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Suicides among Army active-duty soldiers reached an historic high of 185 in 2012 or a rate of nearly 30 deaths per 100,000, triple the Army rate of 2004 and double what is reported among civilians.
While the number of Army suicides among active duty soldiers declined in 2013 by 19 percent, suicides among Army National Guard and reservists reached a record 151 in 2013.
"It's best to view the increase in military suicides as a result of an increase in mental health issues of service members driven in large part, but not entirely, (by) combat and deployment experiences," wrote the authors, retired Col. Carl Castro, former director of psychological health research for the Army, and researcher Sara Kintzle, both with the University of Southern California.
They note, however, that there is no specific reason scientists can cite with absolute certainty to explain the rise in military suicides.
But they note that just ahead of increased suicides was a surge in mental problems in the military. Hospitalizations for depression doubled, increased by five-fold for substance and 10-fold for PTSD.
A sense of hopelessness and being a burden, plus the loss or straining of relationships can occur during crucial life transitions, the authors says, such as returning from combat. leaving the military or growing old.
"What former service members in both vulnerable age groups share is that they are experiencing a period of transition," the authors write.
This is when the worst problems can occur for those already struggling with poor mental health, they say. They called upon both the Pentagon and the VA to do a better job of assisting troubled veterans through crucial periods of transition.
"The majority of veterans find purpose and meaning in their military service. It can be a struggle to find that same sense of purpose as a civilian which may ultimately lead to feelings of despair," the paper says.