U.S. military: Suicides level off overall; sexual assaults are up
The suicide rate in the U.S. military has stopped rising and in some categories has begun to fall -- though it hit another record among active-duty soldiers -- but sexual assault and post-traumatic stress problems are on the rise, the Pentagon said this week as it released new data outlining the scope of both problems.
Being a soldier is by definition a high-stress occupation, especially in recent years with many repeated deployments to staff two wars. And even with an end to the U.S. military role in Iraq and the scheduled drawdown in Afghanistan, it is likely to remain a tough proposition as the Pentagon seeks to reset the military mission in the forthcoming, and financially tight, years.
In separate news conferences, the top echelons of the Defense Department and the Army sought to explain how far the military has come in dealing with a range of health-related problems and how much further it has to go, particularly in dealing with sexual assaults.
On Thursday, the Army released a report, “Generating Health and Discipline in the Force, Ahead of the Strategic Reset,” the result of a three-year study that portrays the difficulties in dealing with suicide. The findings were mixed: Active-duty soldiers killed themselves at a record level in 2011, but the overall suicide rate dropped when non-mobilized Reserve and National Guard troops were included.
“For the calendar year 2011, if you take a look at all the categories, the overall suicide numbers decrease by 10%, from 350 to 315,” Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the outgoing vice chief of staff, told reporters. “The only category where we had an increase of five suicides was in the active-duty category.
"I think we've at least arrested this problem and hopefully will start to push it down,” Chiarelli said. "For all practical purposes ... it has leveled off."
Chiarelli said he is most concerned about an increase in violent sex crimes among members of the Army, which rose 64% from 2006 to 2011. “This is unacceptable. We have zero tolerance for this,” he said.
The day before, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had announced that there were 3,191 sexual assaults reported in the military last year, up slightly from the 3,158 reported in 2010. But he and experts agree that the real number of assaults is probably closer to 19,000 because most attacks are not reported.
“It is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and our families,” Panetta said at a Pentagon news conference.
“Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to try to keep America safe,” he told reporters later. “We have a moral duty to keep them safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor.”
Panetta announced several efforts to address the problem, such as expanding victim services to entire families and additional funding for investigators. He also ordered that an assessment be completed in 120 days explaining how commanding officers and senior enlisted leaders are trained in preventing assaults and in responding to complaints. At the news conference he said the measures were just the first steps and that more proposals would be presented in coming months.
But the steps, while welcome, do not go far enough, said Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat who represents parts of San Mateo County and San Francisco.
Speier is the author of the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, or STOP Act, which seeks to overhaul how sexual cases are handled by the military. A spokeswoman on Friday said the congresswoman hopes there will be hearings on her bill, which has 113 co-sponsors.
“The secretary’s acknowledgment that sexual assault, in his words, ‘has no place in this department,’ is needed,” Speier said in a statement. “It sets the tone for our commanding officers who are expected to carry the message of zero tolerance to 1.4 million men and women in uniform. And I am glad to see the secretary extended these new policies to include spouses and adult dependent children of those in the military.
“But the core of the flawed system remains in place –- unit commanders will continue to have complete and total discretion over incidents of assault in their unit,” Speier said.
“I am advocating for the elimination of the conflicts that exist in the military sexual assault justice system. What Secretary Panetta is doing helps, but it is tinkering rather than overhauling a system that does not adequately protect the honor of the men and women in uniform,” she said.
-- Michael Muskal
Photo: Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli conducts a news briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images