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Rates of suicide in the military were slightly worse during the war years than what the Pentagon previously reported, according to new calculations released by Defense Department officials Friday.
The new arithmetic shows that from 2006 forward — during the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — the true suicide rate across the U.S. military was actually several tenths of a percent to 1% or more higher than what was being reported.
"It took us time and effort to sit down and really just kind of figure out a better way to do the math," says Jacqueline Garrick, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office. She said the delay was a need to standardize how suicides are counted across the military.
The problem with the old, now-abandoned calculation, is that it relied partly on an estimated figure in determining a suicide rate rather than precise numbers, says Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington, the military deputy to the under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness.
The old rates were calculated by the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, according to the Pentagon,
"It's jaw-dropping that the Pentagon would use this kind of crass calculation to measure the impact of the suicide epidemic within their ranks," says Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a senior member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. "If that recalculation in any way indicates a need for additional funding or new services, the Pentagon and Congress must respond to address a problem which is clearly worse than we had been led to believe."
Beginning in 2005, suicide within the military — particularly for the Army — steadily began increasing to record levels every year, and may have peaked in 2012.
Among full-time soldiers, the suicide rate soared to 29.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, well above a 25.1-per-100,000 rate for civilians of a similar age group during 2010, the latest year available, according to a Pentagon report. Among male soldiers, the rate was 31.8-per-100,000. There were a record 164 soldier-suicides that year.
The overall national civilian suicide rate was 12.1-per-100,000 in 2010 and 19.9-per-100,000 for men in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The Army National Guard rate for 2012 reached 30.8 deaths per 100,000 with 110 suicides. The suicide rate for men in the Army National Guard was 34.2-per-100,000,Pentagon data shows.
For full-time troops across the U.S. military, the suicide rate peaked at 22.7-per-100,000 in 2012 and fell to 19.1-per-100,000 last year, according to the Pentagon.
Defense officials said that their old rates for suicide were flawed because officials did the math using only a percentage of National Guard and reservists — and not the true number — who were serving on active-duty status.
"It wasn't precise," says Linnington. "Having a better picture of what's going on ... helps better align and focus the efforts" to reduce suicide.
At any given time, troops on active-duty rolls include not only full-time soldiers, sailors, Marines and Airmen; but National Guard or reservists who are temporarily called up to full duty status.
But the military chose only to estimate those additional Guard and reserve troops on active status. They estimated that 11% of National Guard and reservists are on full-time active duty at any given time, a figure that was believed to be largely accurate, Linnington says.
That practice has now ended and the Pentagon relies only on actual numbers to determine suicide rates, producing separate ratios for full-time military members, those in the National Guard and those in the reserves.
Garrick said that part of the reason for a delay in correcting the arithmetic was that the Pentagon's office for suicide prevention was not established until 2011 and began reviewing the suicide rate calculation the next year.