A Military Under Stress

Suicide rates in the military have jumped over the past few years. The Army has seen the highest rates of suicide in the last 30 years, according to an Associated Press article:

Suicides among U.S. Army troops rose again last year and are at a nearly three-decade high, senior defense officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.At least 128 soldiers killed themselves in 2008, said two officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the data has not been formally released.

Such a jump in the rate reveals the stress of a military now entering the sixth year of war in Iraq, the eighth year of war in Afghanistan, and the eight year post-9/11. Those years have witnessed a intense operational tempo with units going out of country for multiple tours of a year or more. Combine that with the strain of combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan where the front line is a fluid and changing place, and the recipe for stress is complete. The suicide rate has been trending up for awhile. Historically, the rate has hovered between 10-12 suicides per 100,000 service members, but that number has been going up since 9/11:

Year Suicides per 100K
2002 9.8
2005 11
2006 17.3
2007 18.8
2008 20.2

Unfortunately, there is no similar tracking system for Americans who have left the service, and thus it is unclear if they too are killing themselves in larger numbers.

Other signs of this stress abound. The divorce rate in the military is up, especially among female service members:

Divorce rates for its personnel have been on the rise since 2003, the first year of war, when they were 2.9 percent. In 2004, divorce rates in the Army soared to 3.9 percent, propelled by a sharp rise in divorce among the usually much more stable officers corps.

A final signal of the stress has been the difficulties that the Army has had in retaining its officers. Mid-career officers, the backbone of the officer corps, are leaving at much higher rates from the Army than from other services, leaving the force with shortfalls. As a 1997 General Accounting Office (GAO) report (warning: PDF file) put it:

The Army, which continues to be heavily involved in
combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, faces many retention challenges….It projects a shortage of 3,000 or more
officers annually through FY 2013. While the Army is implementing and
considering initiatives to improve officer retention, the initiatives are not
integrated and will not affect officer retention until at least 2009 or are
unfunded. As with its accession shortfalls, the Army does not have an
integrated strategic plan to address its retention shortfalls.

Army officers and potential Army officers are voting with their feet. The latter are not attending the United States Military Academy or joining Reserve Officer Training Corps at college, and the former are leaving the service early in their career.

All of these factors show a military–and particularly an Army–under stress. The services have begun programs to deal with these signs of stress, but these are treating the symptoms rather than the problem. Until the commitments of the military are reduced, the systemic stress will remain and lead to severe and multiple problems.

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