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The active duty Army marked a grim milestone Friday as a Defense Suicide Prevention Office report revealed that the service suffered more suicides in 2021 than any other year since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The 176 confirmed or pending suicide deaths for the service’s active component present a worrying signal that the increase in suicides that began in 2020, which saw 174 suicides, has not abated.
The rate of suicide deaths among active duty troops also climbed to its highest level since the Great Depression — 36.18 per 100,000 soldiers.
The Army Reserve saw a slight increase in suicide deaths, with 45 soldiers dying at a rate of 24.4 per 100,000. The Army National Guard lost 101 troops to suicide, for a rate of 29.92 per 100,000. Those rates are not historical highs.
Although suicide is extremely complex and unique to each victim, last year saw a number of events that could have had a psychological toll on troops, including the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Army officials across the country have been working to address the issue — the service launched a new suicide prevention program in late 2021 that has been trained down to the small unit level via the “chain-teach” method. Other leaders have crowdsourced suggestions from their troops or promoted new handbooks for unit commanders.
But the program’s implementation has gone slower than promised, and a Task & Purpose report highlighted potential issues with online suicide prevention resources that could impede troops in crisis.
The service first declared its intent to write a dedicated suicide prevention regulation in 2020, but that has so far not arrived. A September 2021 release said it would publish that fall. A Nov. 2021 release said it would come “in the first quarter of 2022.”
A status report available on the Army Publications website says the 90-page draft regulation was due on March 22.
An Army spokesperson was unable to respond to a request for comment before this article’s publication deadline.
A near-record rate, but not a record number
When calculated against the active duty Army’s end strength, 2021′s 36.18 suicide deaths per 100,000 soldiers is the highest rate of suicides since 1938, according to a 2019 Journal of the American Medical Association analysis of Army suicide rates over time.
One of the study’s authors, University of Hawaii-Hilo professor Jeffrey Smith, told Army Times that while 2021′s raw numbers “are not the highest annual total...[they are] obviously too many and tragic.”
Smith pointed towards a year with a relatively low suicide rate — 1918, when less than 15 soldiers per 100,000 died by suicide — as an example.
“According to a Surgeon General report, in 1918, 258 ‘white enlisted’ men alone were recorded as having taken their own life,” explained the historian.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.