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The former Army vice chief of staff, who once reviewed the grim details of every soldier suicide under his watch, says the nation's medical and scientific community must address the alarming trend of suicide in the general U.S. population if the Pentagon has any hope of bringing the rates down.
Retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, now the head of the Seattle-based brain injury research non-profit One Mind For Research, said in an interview earlier this month that the national effort to address suicide falls short of what's needed to cut suicide rates among all Americans, including troops.
This week, the Army confirmed an Associated Press report stating that 182 active duty soldiers committed suicide in 2012, bringing the total number for active duty personnel across the services to 349, a 15 percent increase from 2011 and a record since the Defense Department began closely tracking statistics in 2001.
The figures exceeded the Pentagon's own internal projection for the year of 325, according to the AP.
Chiarelli, who was instrumental in instituting the Army initiative to publish its suicide numbers each month, said the American public should question what's happening in society as a whole regarding mental illness, treatment and stress.
"Yes, the U.S. Army and the services have gone through a highly stressful period and 12 years of war, and we've seen a small segment of people that have an elevated suicide rate, but it pales in comparison to the 34,800 people that kill themselves in this country every year and the number that hospitalize themselves from an attempt — 160,000 to 170,000 a year," Chiarelli said.
In 2012, the Army had 182 active-duty suicides, the Marine Corps, 48; the Air Force, 59 and the Navy, 60, according to the services.
Despite being a record, the overall suicide rate in the military remains below that in a comparable population, males ages 17-60. In 2012, the military's rate was 17.5 per 100,000; in the comparable civilian population, it was 25 per 100,000 in 2010.
Since 2000, the suicide rates for American males ages 25 to 64 was 21 per 100,000; it increased by 2010 to 25 per 100,000.
The military rate for men in 2000 was 14 per 100,000. After increasing to nearly 22 per 100,000 in 2009, it declined to 17.5 in 2012.
Military advocacy groups are calling for aggressive action from the Obama administration to address the issue.
Last year, the president announced he would form an Interagency Task Force on Military and Veterans Mental Health on the topic; it has held at least one closed organizational meeting, according to a source with knowledge of task force implementation.
"This latest suicide report reveals a national crisis," Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said of the latest Pentagon figures. "Solid steps have been taken by the military and elected leaders to address the suicide crisis by improving access to mental health care and strengthening suicide prevention programs. But clearly, we must do much more."
A Defense Department review of military suicides in 2011 showed that 53 percent of the troops who committed suicide never deployed to combat. Eighty-five percent had "no direct combat histories."
They shared other commonalities: Nearly half had a failed intimate relationship in the months before their deaths and 37 percent had a work-related administrative or legal issue.
More than half sought care from a mental health specialist or received in-hospital care before they died.
As vice chief, Chiarelli often repeated the slogan of an Army anti-suicide campaign, "One suicide is too many!"
He still believes it. But he adds that the research is lacking to stem the tide.
"There's a small amount of research going on and the data is not readily shared. What we need to do is collect the information find out what are some of the tippers that put a person at the higher risk for suicide," Chiarelli said.
For those who need help, the Veterans Crisis Line is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255.