Much Ado and Overblown

“Alarming Increase in Soldier Suicides Tied to Long War,” hawks The Washington Post (TWP). “Uh, not quite,” says Inside the Headquarters.The story, covered by the same reporter who brought you “The World of Walter Reed According to TWP” seems to being in search of The Next Big Story or a back-up to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center Pulitzer-pleasing piece.


While the journalist factually reports the latest stats on Army suicides show an increase — 121 in 2007 (this is if all suspected cases are verified as suicides — a point not clearly made) up by 20 percent over 2006. (That would be up from about 100 or so in 2006.) But is this number statistically significant given the large number of active duty servicemembers? 

Let’s look at the Marine Corps. Its suicides tallied 24 for 2006 and increased to 33 in 2007. Smaller numbers, smaller service, but the increase is 37.5 percent, almost double the Army’s. Because we are reducing a complex issue to simple numbers, maybe a more telling figure is number of suicides per 100,000. For the Corps, it went from 12.4 in 2006 to 16.5 in 2007. Marine Corps researchers claim the suicide rate is about the same for all the services. (We are reasonably sure the Army is one of the other services.) 

When graphed over 27 years, increases and decreases in the numbers are evident. Tying them to a particular conflict or event is a stretch, though TWP tries to do it. Suicide rates were up in the early 1990s, but that might have been a function of lowered recruiting standards at the time. Officer and enlistment accession standards are the greased pigs with which the services are wrestling today. The quality of the people coming in — and the baggage they bring — might hold more answers over the long term than external factors. 

Get this: According to a 2008 report, most Marine Corps suicides show no past deployment history. We take that as an indicator that current ops and op-tempo might not be leading factors. Pointing to “war” as a probable “cause” is close to pegging the “absurdity” meter. Maybe we’re missing something, but isn’t armed conflict in the armed forces’ job description? That fact aside, given stats dating back to 1980, it is difficult to pin a one-year increase on anything. To do so without looking at trends within the armed services and the civilian sector is irresponsible.
Speaking of trends, the Marine Corps’ average over the most recent 10-year period is 14.3 per 100,000. Researchers report the civilian rate for a similar demographic in the same period is significantly higher at 20. The overall average for the U.S. population comes in at around 11 but varies considerably by age group. 

Through carefully (or carelessly) chosen statistics, this complex (and private) issue has been thrust into “The Sky Is Falling” category. Might we suggest more accurate and balanced future reporting?

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