Suicide rates have rocked the military in recent years as the burden of deployments has apparently come at an alarming human cost. In 2011, the last period for which there is complete data, there were 301 suicides among service members (Air Force, 50; Army, 167; Marine Corps, 32; and Navy, 52), according to data provided by the Pentagon. These numbers include deaths that are “strongly suspected to be suicides” but whose final determination is pending. In 2011, 915 service members attempted suicide, according to the data. About half of those who died by suicide had been deployed to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – about 47 percent. Eight percent had a history of multiple deployments. “Direct combat experience” was reported in connection to 15 percent of the suicides and 17 percent of the attempted suicides, according to the data.
It’s tricky to tie war deployments directly to military suicide rates, but it’s clear there’s some connection. Suicide prevention has now become a staple concept of military preparedness before and after deployments, and commanders are now required to create a command climate in which individual service members can get help without suffering setbacks to their careers. Mostly, it’s a question of changing the mindset: “Seeking help is a sign of strength” is the military’s mantra now.
Still, the stigma of seeking help remains, especially for career-oriented service members who still can believe that if counseling is documented on their records, it could make it hard to be promoted or receive choice orders. As a result, some service members seek help outside the military health-care system to avoid being documented for obtaining counseling.
That kind of counseling didn’t help Dempsey, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. But Sampler said he was remembered in Michigan by friends and family for his “commitment to making the world a better place.” But, he said, “Mike was also part of USAID’s family, and now we will take care of our family, many of whom are still serving in difficult and dangerous circumstances far from their homes.”
Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter at Foreign Policy and author of Situation Report. He tweets at glubold.