Military's base-by-base suicide numbers reveal startling statistics at some of the highest-profile installations
WASHINGTON – Some of the military's highest-profile bases in 2020 had the greatest number of suicides, a troubling trend for the Pentagon as it contends with a growing number of troops dying not in combat but in their own homes and barracks.
The Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune and the Army's Fort Bragg, both in North Carolina, saw 21 troops die by suicide in 2020, according to Pentagon data obtained by USA TODAY. Fort Carson in Colorado had 18 such deaths in 2020. The Pentagon, in a document attached to the suicide figures, cautioned against ranking them by risk, noting that the populations of the installations vary by size: Lejeune has more than 38,000 troops. Bragg has 50,000 and Fort Carson has more than 25,000 soldiers, according to the Army.
Smaller installations also appeared on the list. Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, with 13,470 airmen and soldiers, had 12 suicides in 2020.
The Pentagon does not identify bases with fewer than 10 suicides to avoid identifying individual people.
The suicide figures have sparked concern on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jackie Speier, the California Democrat who chairs the personnel subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, won approval in annual defense authorization legislation to create an independent panel to review suicide prevention programs at military installations.
“Every loss of one of our brave service members or members of our military families is a tragedy that demands the attention of leaders, and especially so at the nine bases that saw double-digit deaths by suicide in 2020,” Speier said. “I expect base commanders to take action to improve suicide prevention efforts. I am especially concerned to see that Joint Base Langley-Eustis had as many suicides as much larger installations."
Some of the bases with the highest suicide rates also have high rates of sexual assault, Speier said. That connection underscores the need to address poor leadership, she said.
In September, the Pentagon released data showing 580 troops died by suicide in 2020, compared with 504 in 2019, an increase of 15%. The report noted that the suicide rate among active-duty troops had increased from 20.3 per 100,000 in 2015 to 28.7 per 100,000 in 2020. The rate of suicide since 2018 had remained stable, however.
After adjusting for age and sex, the suicide rate for active, Reserve and the National Guard troops was comparable with that of the U.S. population in 2019, the last year for which there is similar data.
Young enlisted male troops have a higher risk of suicide, according to the report. They make up a large portion of the troops stationed at Lejeune, Bragg and Carson.
This year, the Army has seen an increase in suicide. Overall, suicide among active-duty soldiers jumped to 104 for the first six months of 2021 compared with 78 for the same period last year. For all active-duty troops, the number of suicides for the first half of 2021 was 174, compared with 171 last year.
A particular area of concern is U.S. Army Alaska, USA TODAY has found. There were at least six deaths by suicide among the 11,500 soldiers there. Their deaths came despite an effort that spent more than $200 million in recent years to combat suicide in Alaska.
What's being done to battle military suicides
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during a visit to troops in Alaska in July, made a point of addressing suicide among soldiers. Mental health, he said, should receive the same attention as physical maladies.
"I'm mindful of the stress that they're often under and I'm deeply concerned about the suicide rates, not only here but across the force," Austin said. "As you've heard me say before, one loss by suicide is too many, and while we're working hard on this problem, we have a lot more to do. And I believe that has – it has to start with removing the stigma attached to mental health issues."
At Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Air Force and Army installations that merged in 2010 to form a single post, Task Force True North was recently created to address suicide, Air Force Col. Gregory Beaulieu, commander for the joint base, said in a statement Sunday. The program will embed 16 mental health providers with units across the base.
“Losing a single JBLE airman or soldier to suicide is one too many, yet the heartbreaking reality is that service members continue to take their own lives on our watch," Beaulieu said. "Here at JBLE, we’re focused on encouraging our airmen and soldiers to ask for help before they escalate to complete hopelessness."
The Army has launched several initiatives to prevent suicide, including financial literacy instruction, marriage retreats and programs for single soldiers, said Lt. Col. Gabriel Ramirez, a Pentagon spokesman. Financial struggles and relationship problems have been found to contribute to some deaths by suicide.
"Suicide is a complex phenomenon, with numerous factors and environmental conditions that contribute to increased depression and other behavioral issues that influence an individual’s decision to harm themselves," Ramirez said. "Significant factors are the absence of a sense of connectedness and a person’s inability to cope with life stressors."
The Marine Corps' first symposium for suicide prevention was held on the East Coast this year, giving Camp Lejeune personnel the first chance to attend. The Marines also expanded instruction on preventing substance abuse at the base, citing misuse of alcohol as a risk factor.
If you are a service member or veteran in crisis or having thoughts of suicide (or know someone who is), call the Military Crisis Line/Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1; text 838255; or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.