From 128 to 143 American servicemen took their own lives last year. The numbers indicate that, for the first time since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the suicide rate among U.S. troops has matched the suicide rate of American civilians.
These 2008 military suicides -- up from 106 in 2006 and 115 in 2007 -- came at a time when violence had subsided dramatically in Iraq.
The suicide rate was between 18.1 per 100,000 and 20.2 per 100,000. (The 18.1 to 20.2 range is the result of 15 deaths that still are being investigated as possible suicides.) In the United States, civilian men of comparable ages commit suicide at a rate of 19.2 to 19.5 per 100,000 people. (The New York Times says 19.2; the Army says the 19.5.)
Military-civilian comparison. If the figures are averaged, the military suicide rate is 19.15 and the civilian suicide rate is 19.35.
Summary of averages:
U.S. troops suicide rate: 19.15 per 100,000.
U.S. civilians suicide rate: 19.35 per 100,000.
So last year, Americans in the armed forces were killing themselves about as frequently as their fellow American civilians.
Many of our troops have been under stresses that civilians can never imagine. Many of them have been away from home, in Iraq or Afghanistan, two or three times, possibly 15 months at a time.
Where those stresses have caused the kinds of emotional turmoil and family breakup that can lead to suicide, we have to do everything we can to help these veterans. For one thing, we have to recognize them for their hard and heroic work in liberating Iraq and Afghanistan.
We also might ask why civilians almost always kill themselves at a rate higher than soldiers. Perhaps the Army has lifestyle secrets that could benefit civilians.
Fitting the bias. Remember, in the earlier years of the Iraq war, major news organizations reported military suicides principally as alarming evidence that Iraq should be abandoned to tyranny and more wars. In those years, the news stories usually buried the fact that the military suicide rate was lower than the civilian rate, or failed to report it at all. Why? Possibly because Democratic news editors didn’t want readers to notice that our men in arms were more stable than their civilian peers.
This year, when troop suicides match or slightly exceed civilian suicides, we’re finally presented the military-civilian comparison up front. Why? Because this time, even after the Iraq war has been won, the numbers score a point for the old defeatist reflex, which some Democratic news editors just can’t shake.
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Update: Up to 24 American soldiers committed suicide in January 2009 alone. That is six times the number of military suicides in January 2008, and more than double the military suicide rate of 2008 overall. That high rate is unlikely to continue, but it is good reason to pay closer attention to what our troops are going through.
Note: About 140 GIs killed themselves in 2008, about 12 a month. That was close to the civilian suicide rate for young men.
Update: Military suicides 2009: