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Military Suicides Hit Record High In 2012


The war in Afghanistan may be winding down, but the toll on soldiers and Marines back home is not. The military has tallied suicides among active-duty troops last year, and the number is at a record level.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, joins us now. And Tom, suicides were up again among troops in 2012.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: That's right, Audie. In 2012, there were 349 suicides. That's up from 301 in 2011. Now, that's more than the military lost in Afghanistan, in all of last year. These numbers were first reported by the Associated Press, and we've confirmed them. Now, that number includes active-duty as well as Guard and Reserve members. The largest portion were the active-duty Army; 182 took their own lives in 2012.

CORNISH: And what are the theories, at this point, or explanations for the increase; especially given that fewer troops are seeing combat.

BOWMAN: Well, it's really complicated, and they're finding out that a suicide isn't simply connected to deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. And you'd think there'd be a clear link here, but there isn't. Now, many who took their own lives did see combat. But a large number - a third or more - of those who commit suicide, never deployed. So why? It's often, they're finding, failed relationships; financial burdens - of course, made worse by the poor economy recently; and you also have problems at home, or just adjusting back to domestic life.

CORNISH: And the Army, in particular, has tried to intervene for several years now. Remind us of some of the reforms they've been making.

BOWMAN: You know, they've really pushed this from the top down. They now have resiliency training in basic training; which is basically, teaching people how to deal with stress, and saying the strong ones are those who seek help when they need it. They've come up with hotlines. They've had stand-downs, showing soldiers videos with the warning signs of potential suicide. So they've done quite a bit.

CORNISH: But is there any idea about why this effort hasn't really worked?

BOWMAN: Well, most people say there's still a stigma about getting help. And most of those who commit suicide are young men, 18 to 24. They don't want to admit that they have a problem, or they're afraid it'll hurt their career. So the problem is, most of the people - those in need are the ones least likely to seek help. And here's the other thing, Audie. If they did want to seek help, there aren't enough mental health experts and counselors able to see them. There's a huge shortage out there. And veterans groups - like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America - they've suggested that the president, and other national leaders, need to urge people to get degrees in counseling so they can help.

The other thing is, Congress is getting involved more so now. Sen. Perry - Sen. Patty Murray, from Washington, helped push a measure into law recently that calls for better oversight of some of the mental health programs; more education for people like chaplains and medics, who might help, who might spot those at risk. And also, she's calling for what's - this is interesting - peer counselors to fellow Afghan and Iraq veterans; basically, fellow combat veterans who served, who might be able to reach these people better than psychologists - at least, get them to seek help.

CORNISH: And just a short time left, Tom, but these reforms, how long will they - take effect?

BOWMAN: Well, some of the - some of them are just going into effect; this measure pushed by Sen. Patty Murray is just going into effect now. But it's going to take some time. Everyone is grappling with this - from the top on down - and the numbers are still going up.

CORNISH: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.