After Specialist Freddy Hook, a medic with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, killed himself in 2010, the trail of possible causes seemed long.
He had used illegal drugs: Was it the demons of addiction? His rocky relationship with his fiancée? A wrenching deployment to earthquake-ravaged Haiti or the prospect of an impending tour in Afghanistan?
As with most of suicides plaguing the military today, no one will know for sure.
“There are so many factors,” said his mother, Theresa Taylor, of Lafayette, La. “Everything that was important to him was having problems.”
Of the crises facing American troops today, suicide ranks among the most emotionally wrenching — and baffling. Over the course of nearly 12 years and two wars, suicide among active-duty troops has risen steadily, hitting a record of 350 in 2012. That total was twice as many as a decade before and surpassed not only the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan but also the number who died in transportation accidents last year.
Even with the withdrawal from Iraq and the pullback in Afghanistan, the rate of suicide within the military has continued to rise significantly faster than within the general population, where it is also rising. In 2002, the military’s suicide rate was 10.3 per 100,000 troops, well below the comparable civilian rate. But today the rates are nearly the same, above 18 per 100,000 people.
And according to some experts, the military may be undercounting the problem because of the way it calculates its suicide rate.
Yet though the Pentagon has commissioned numerous reports and invested tens of millions of dollars in research and prevention programs, experts concede they are little closer to understanding the root causes of why military suicide is rising so fast.
“Any one variable in isolation doesn’t explain things,” said Craig J. Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. “But the interaction of all of them do. That’s what makes it very difficult to solve the problem. And that’s why we haven’t made advances.”
An emerging consensus among researchers is that, just as among civilians, a dauntingly complex web of factors usually underlie military suicide: mental illness, sexual or physical abuse, addictions, failed relationships, financial struggles. Indeed, the most recent Pentagon report of suicides found that half of the troops who killed themselves in 2011 had experienced the failure of an intimate relationship and about a quarter had received diagnoses of substance abuse.
Studies have also found that certain patterns of suicide among civilians seem intensified within the military. Among civilians, young white males are one of the most likely groups to kill themselves. In the military that group, which is disproportionately represented, is even more likely to commit suicide. Among civilians, firearms are the most common means; in the military, as might be expected, guns are used even more often, in 6 of every 10 instances.
Deployment and exposure to combat can act as catalysts that worsen existing problems in a service member’s life, like drug abuse, or cause new ones, like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, which may contribute to suicidal behavior. Indeed, a study published this week in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry found that troops with multiple concussions were significantly more likely to report having suicidal thoughts than troops with one or no concussions.
Yet deployment and combat by themselves cannot explain the spiking suicide rates, researchers say. Pentagon data show that in recent years about half of service members who committed suicide never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. And more than 80 percent had never been in combat.
“This probably is the keenest misconception the public has: that deployment is the factor most related to the increased rates of suicide,” said Cynthia Thomsen, a research psychologist at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.
Another question lingers: Is the current trend unique, or typical of war throughout the ages? Because detailed data on military suicides was not collected until after Vietnam, it is impossible to know, though many experts believe that suicides rose during and after the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.
What is known is that since 2001, more than 2,700 service members have killed themselves, and that figure does not include National Guard and reserve troops who were not on active duty when they committed suicide.
Suicide among veterans has also risen somewhat since 2001, to an estimated 22 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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Contributed by James Dao and Andrew W. Lehren of The New York Times.