From 2010 to 2012, more people in the military died from suicide than any other underlying cause. Almost half were people shooting themselves in the United States with their private weapon.
Since 2010, suicide has been the most common underlying cause of death for members of the U.S. armed forces.
While this has been well-reported already, it hasn’t been widely shared that from 2010 to 2012 an armed service member was far more likely to die from suicide if stationed in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Unsurprisingly, almost half of all of those suicide deaths were due to privately acquired firearms.
The Department of Defense tracks suicides by overall numbers and rate per 100,000 person years, but the Armed Services Health Surveillance Center compiled three years and looked at suicide events to compare by method* across regions.
Being in a combat zone (here defined as Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Djibouti) is most likely so fundamentally different from being stationed in a peaceful area that decreasing the number of suicide attempts and completions has an absolute floor that no policy or materials can reduce.
A base in Germany or South Korea, though, should have similar stresses to working out of Texas or Washington State, with similar demographics among service members. Instead, a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine at home is more than twice as likely to attempt suicide (61.7 per 100,000 person-years) and more than four times as likely to die from suicide (19.2) in the U.S. than being stationed in a similar situation in Europe or Asia (29.1 attempted; 4.5 completed).
In the Armed Services Health Surveillance Center report on the period 2010-2012, it makes the difference between the two areas clear.
‘In general, U.S. military members have more limited access to firearms when serving in Europe/Asia than in other regions. Nearly all of the countries in Europe and Asia where U.S. service members are stationed have very restrictive weapons laws. … Although laws and regulations governing gun ownership vary from state to state, most citizens in the U.S. may legally own [privately owned firearms] and many service members do.’
Without going so far as to name it the cause, the report finds that the difference is the accessibility of firearms and the marked efficiency of that method compared with others.
Drug and alcohol suicide attempts may not necessarily be intentional acts, just accidental overdoses. But even when they are, it’s very rare for them to be fatal. Hanging is in almost every instance an intentional act of self-harm, but even it might only result in death in half of all occasions or less.
Guns are made for killing people. They’re very, very good at it, and that’s why we give them to soldiers to use when facing enemy combatants. In combat zones, service members have to have them. But times and places of peace, they’re not just extraneous, they’re dangerous.
If Taliban organized for a terrorist group to creep in and assassinate a single military service member in his or her home, the response would be swift and unequivocal, and nothing would stand in our way in making sure those responsible were held accountable and that it never happened again to anyone.
In 2013, 127 U.S. service members were killed in Afghanistan. The same year, 132 killed themselves with their own firearm, not quite half at their own home.
The United States has a strong gun lobby, and legislatures and courts that make portable human-killing machines legal and universally common. What we don’t have is a desire to do anything to change or address the firearms problem that kills hundreds of service men and women each year, as well as 20,000 of the 40,000 civilians who complete suicide each year.
So if you know someone serving in the military, and you care about their safety, the best thing you can do is hope they can get stationed somewhere that doesn’t have a Second Amendment.
They’ll be much safer that way. But then, you’d be safer there, too.
*Categories of methods of suicide attempts and suicides are defined as Drugs; Alcohol; Hanging/asphyxiation; Firearm, military issued; Firearm, not military issued; Sharp/blunt object; Other (Fire/steam; Gas, vehicle exhaust; Gas, utility [or other]; Chemicals; Drowning; Jumping from high place; Lying in front of a moving object; Crashing a motor vehicle); All other methods; and Data unavailable.