Suicide in the Military – a Memorial Day spotlight

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Suicide rates hit an all-time high among active duty service members in 2018, reaching a total of 321 deaths before year’s end. Broken down by branch, that total comes out to 57 Marines, 68 sailors, 58 airmen, and 138 soldiers, according to an article by Military.com. And, with another Memorial Day weekend just around the corner, statistics about suicide in the military tend to put the entire community on edge.


If you or someone you know is in danger of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.


For anyone connected to the military world, Memorial Day is a tough annual holiday to get through – one many would likely choose to ignore.

Suicide in the military
Photo by Matt Botsford from Unsplash

For many military families, it’s a weekend of reflection. Of spending a few quiet days raising a glass to lost friends or leaders. It’s spent reconnecting with the guys from an old unit. Sometimes you’re checking in on them, sometimes they’re checking in on you.

Any cookouts attended are less about kicking off your summer plans and more about gathering your friends close to you in comfort. Often, old stories and memories of those lost along the way are shared, a drink is left in their memory, and everyone secretly leans on one another so they can make it through the holiday in one piece.

For many, this is one of the best and safest ways to celebrate Memorial Day. It helps to surround yourself with people who understand the unspeakable emotions of losing a fellow service member.

Unfortunately, not everyone has an outlet to help them through. In fact, an average of 20 former and current troops succumb to their demons and commit suicide every day. That’s nearly one suicide per hour – a rate two times higher than civilian suicides. Fortunately, that average has slowly decreased over recent years. It’s common to still find the statistic referenced at 22, although the official average has since dropped. And while 20 is still an unacceptable number, the downward trend is a glimmer of hope.

Military Suicide Reports

In 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released an updated version of the VA National Suicide Data Report; the original came out in 2012. The report announced the findings of service member suicides between 2005 and 2016.

According to the report, an average of 20.6 service member suicides occur every day. Veterans make up 16.8 suicides, while 3.8 are active duty members, national guardsmen, or reservists.

And while this number is down from the original report – an average of 22 suicides a day in 2012 – the current official average far outpaces suicide rates in the civilian sector. Currently, it’s estimated that suicides in the military world occur twice as often as civilians. This statistic includes both current and former military. However, some argue that since it does not adjust for age and sex classifications, this statistic may be inaccurate.

suicide in the military
Photo by Katherine Grace from Unsplash

Beginning in 2008, the Department of Defense (DoD) began compiling its own suicide report – the DoD Suicide Event Report (DoDSER). Created to help standardize suicide surveillance efforts across all branches, the DoDSER is an annual report that collects and analyzes all factors related to suicide deaths. Some of these factors include age, rank, sex, marital status, substance abuse history, domestic violence history, and history of self-injury and mental health status.

READ MORE: Click here to view all nine public DoDSER reports, from 2008-2016.

Unfortunately, I was unable to track down any annual DoDSER’s after 2016. However, I did find the DoD Quarterly Suicide Report for 2017 and 2018. These reports, much like the annual DoDSER, can be found in full on the Defense Suicide Prevention Office’s website.

Below you can see the annual rates of suicide in the military, separated by service components. These components are better known as Active Duty, National Guard, and Reserves. The totals for each component contain the total number of suicides across all DoD branches – Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

The U.S. Coast Guard, although a military branch, is not reflected in the totals. The Coast Guard is maintained under the Department of Homeland Security, which is a separate federal department from the DoD. And naturally, the DoD only compiles data for the branches maintained under the department itself.

The data was compiled from the available DoDSER’s from 2008 to 2016, as well as the DoDSQR’s from 2017 and 2018. Please note that the data from 2018 is incomplete – military suicidality rates were unavailable for quarter four.

In the graph below, you can see the annual rates of suicide in the military, compiled from 2008 to 2018. Detailed in the DoDSER and DoDSQR reports, this graph depicts the total suicide rates across all service components and DoD branches.

Again, please note that the data from 2018 is incomplete – military suicidality rates were unavailable for quarter four.

And with a problem as impactful as suicide, let’s take a look at how the issue is being handled, and what we can do about it.

Preventing Suicide in the Military

Unfortunately, some current suicide prevention programs aren’t fulfilling their duties to our service members.

In 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study that found the VA responsible for mishandling millions in suicide prevention funding. Of the $6.2 million allocated for suicide prevention media outreach, only $57,000 was actually used. That amounts to less than 1 percent of their allotment for the fiscal year.

As a result, the VA’s suicide prevention campaigns on social media decreased by nearly two-thirds – the GAO reporting the VA developed only 47 of suicide prevention content on their social media outlets.

According to the VA’s Veterans Health Administration officials, leadership turnover rates are to blame. In a Military Times article dated December 18, 2018, VHA officials said the suicide prevention director position sat vacant from July 2017 to April 2018.

How Civilians Can Help

There are plenty of great ways to get involved and help prevent suicide in the military. One of the easiest ways to do it is to simply reach out. Check on your veteran friends today and see how they’re doing. Chances are, they know someone who didn’t make it home, or who was lost to suicide. Most former and current service members are more than willing to open that line of conversation with someone who cares. You don’t have to be in the military in order to understand them. You just have to listen.

Aside from listening, you can also volunteer at a local suicide prevention center, or donate to the cause. Non-profits everywhere are always looking for new volunteers and donations. Consider helping out one of these organizations:

With our help, these and other non-profits can provide better programs and resources to our service members. With our help, we can prevent suicide in the military.

Additional Suicide Prevention Resources

If you or someone you know is in danger of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Suicide in the military is an ongoing problem – one that will require awareness and better resources to beat. With Memorial Day just around the corner, it’s our duty as civilians to ensure our current and former service members get the help they need when they need it. One easy way you can help is to simply reach out to your friends and make sure they’re okay. Listen to their stories, their worries, their grief. And, be sure to keep it going. Give them the reassurance that you’ll be there any time, any day. We all need a way to connect to others, and now is a perfect time to start.

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