The military's most tenacious enemy: suicide
More troops kill themselves than die in combat
By Gretel C. Kovach
Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 4:56 p.m.
By the numbers
Military suicides in 2010:
Marine Corps: A 29 percent drop in the number of active-duty Marines suspected of committing suicide, from 52 in 2009 to 37 last year. The number had been climbing for several years until it peaked in 2009 at a rate of 24 per 100,000 — the highest among the armed forces. The falloff was coupled with an increase in suicide attempts, from 164 the previous year up to 173 — the highest since the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq began. The Marine Corps, which does not generally report suicides among reservists, also had seven suspected suicides among its part-time troops in 2010.
Navy: Slight drop in suicides, from 46 in 2009 to 42 in 2010.
Army: A 24 percent increase in suicides, from 242 in 2009 to 301 last year, despite the hiring of hundreds more mental health and substance abuse counselors. The uptick was largely because of a near doubling in the number of national guard and reservists who killed themselves. The number of active-duty soldiers committing suicides had been climbing since 2004, but it dropped slightly from 162 in 2009 to 156 in 2010.
Air Force: Worst year since 1994, with the suspected suicides of 54 active-duty airmen and 27 reservists.
Source: Preliminary 2010 data from the Department of Defense; numbers do not include service members in the inactive reserves or those recently discharged because of mental health issues.
As U.S. armed forces battle through their 10th year at war, suicide is their most tenacious and enigmatic foe. Last year, more military personnel committed suicide than were killed in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At least 468 active duty and reserve troops died last year in suspected suicides. The number of service members felled in hostile action was 455, according to the Department of Defense Manpower Data Center.
The Pentagon’s assault on the problem — including numerous prevention programs, task forces and studies — helped stanch record-high suicide rates in some categories of service members in 2010, even as deaths and suicide attempts increased in others, according to preliminary year-end tallies.
The Marine Corps’ suicide rate had soared above all branches of the armed forces in 2009. Then the number of suicides plummeted 29 percent last year. Exactly why is still unknown and being studied, said Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Martin, a clinical psychologist who took over in September as manager of the Marine Corps Suicide Prevention Program.
“But we think it’s because Marine attitudes are changing about seeking help for behavioral health issues,” he said. “They are starting to see that it is just as important to be mentally fit as it is to be physically fit.”
DSTRESS hotline: West Coast Marines can speak anonymously to other Marines by calling (877) 476-7734 or chat live at www.dstressline.com
Courage to Call: Free, peer-to-peer helpline for San Diego County service members, veterans and families, (877) 698-7838
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255
Military One Source: (800) 342-9647
Defense Centers of Excellence Outreach Center: (866) 966-1020
The drop in suicides is probably a sign of the maturation of prevention programs, he added. Marines are often reluctant to seek treatment for themselves, but the “Never Leave a Marine Behind” program teaches them to look for emotional distress in fellow Marines and to treat stress wounds like any other injury.
The complexity of the phenomenon, however, remains somewhat mystifying. For instance, as the number of Marines who committed suicide fell last year, the number who tried to kill themselves climbed higher than ever during the recent wars; and among the 37 Marines who committed suicide last year, only 21 had served in combat.
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said he believes that “dwell time” and the tempo of military operations are key factors in suicide.
“The more time we can get between deployments, the better off we’re going to be,” Chiarelli said. “It’s not just the physical act of deploying, it’s all the other things,” such as relationship problems or heavy drinking.
Navy and Marine personnel stationed in San Diego created one of the military’s most innovative suicide prevention and psychological resiliency initiatives — a program that embeds mental health providers within combat units and trains other front-line troops such as sergeants and chaplains to be mental health first responders.
The program was developed by the Naval Center for Combat & Operational Stress Control, which opened in 2008 at San Diego Naval Medical Center in Balboa Park, and was applied for the first time in theater last year as a surge of Camp Pendleton troops deployed to the war zone.
In Afghanistan, the Operational Stress Control and Readiness Program has broken down barriers to delivering mental health care and reduced the need for medication and evacuations, according to Cmdr. Charles Benson, psychiatrist for Camp Pendleton’s 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
“Those folks are constantly monitoring their Marines, helping them with simple issues and also understanding at what point they need to be referred back for higher care,” Benson said.
The result has been that only 7 to 8 percent of Marines in the war zone in treatment for mental health issues are taking related medication, such as anti-depressants or sleep aids, he said.
“For a long time, we were just pushing out suicide education. People contemplating suicide knew the right numbers to call, but they weren’t asking for help,” said Navy Capt. Scott Johnston, interim director of the Naval combat stress center in San Diego.
“Mental health is a leadership issue, it is not just a medical problem,” Johnston said. “Leaders need to get on board in monitoring and bringing up the psychological health of their Marines and sailors. If they do that, the suicide rate will go down.”
The Marines say it is too soon to tell whether they have turned a corner in combating suicide, but any number of suicides is too many.
When the body of an 18-year-old Marine, Pfc. Derek Capulong, was found hanging from a rifle range watch tower in July, the pain reverberated far beyond Camp Pendleton.
Months later, the young private’s family in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., is still trying to make sense of his death.
Zenaida Capulong, who helped raise Pfc. Derek Capulong and spoke to him weekly, said she didn’t learn that her grandson was upset until it was too late. He had broken up with his high school sweetheart and been rebuked by a Marine supervisor, “but he had all his dreams,” she said.
Wilfredo Capulong still can’t accept that his grandson took his own life. “He was really determined to finish his ambitions,” he said.
Pfc. Derek Capulong wanted to walk in the footsteps of the great men of the Marine Corps, including his father, who had been murdered by carjackers when he was a baby.
As far as the Capulongs are concerned, he did, and they will always be proud.
Pfc. Derek Capulong was buried with full military honors near his home. “I love him very much,” his grandfather said.
Gretel.Kovach@uniontrib.com; (619) 293-1293