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Examining the Rise of Active Duty Military Suicides

Published on Nov 19, 2021 at 3:32 pm in Veterans.

Examining the Rise of Active Duty Military Suicides

For the past two decades, the question has been asked more and more frequently by researchers and the general public alike. Why is the suicide rate so high in the military? The Department of Defense Annual Suicide Report released in September 2021 showed an increase of 41.4% in active duty service member deaths by suicide from 2015 to 2020. An increase of over 15% was observed from 2018 to 2020.

In June 2021, a Brown University Cost of War Project study on suicide rates among military service members and veterans was published. The research findings determined that the number of military deaths by suicide since 9/11 is four times higher than the number of deaths by military operations-related activities. In U.S. history, the suicide rate among military members in the post-9/11 era is comparable only to the period surrounding the Vietnam War. The current rates are higher than any our nation has seen since before World War II.

Current Active Military Suicide Statistics

Based on the findings of the recent 2021 research reports, there have been 30,177 active duty service members and veterans who have died by suicide since 9/11. In contrast, only 7,057 military service members were killed performing military duties during the same time period. Researchers note that there has been a steady upward trend in the number of military suicides following the events of September 11, 2001.

This upward trend is especially alarming when examined in comparison with historical military suicide rates. During the period following World War II, death by suicide among military service members began to firmly decrease. This was a result of several influences. Researchers believe that important advances in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders helped prevent countless military suicides. Further, better protective gear for soldiers, improvements in life-saving medical care, and military tactics which limited time in combat led to a decrease in deaths by suicide.

We’ll look at some of the reasons it is believed that military suicide rates are high in the U.S., further examining the rise in active duty military suicides over the past 20 years. Please contact Thomas Law Offices if you have further questions about how our office can help you.

Factors Contributing to High Military Suicide Rates

The following are general causes that researchers have pointed to as contributing factors to the high military suicide rates in the United States:

Age and Gender Factors

The information published in the most recent DoD Annual Suicide Report showed that the majority of individuals who died by suicide were male military service members under the age of 30. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 34, and that the suicide rate among males is 3.7 times higher (22.4 per 100,000) than among females (6.0 per 100,000).

Trauma and Stress

The Brown University-published study lists high exposure to trauma, stress, and the difficulty of reintegrating into civilian life as significant factors in military suicide rates. Studies have shown that military-related stress can increase risk of suicide and self-directed violence. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is also a major concern, with an estimated over half of women and over one-third of men experiencing sexual harassment or assault during military service.

Military Culture

A strict system that has traditionally stigmatized mental health and limited access to mental healthcare may be a contributing factor to military suicide rates. In 2020, it was reported that the army would review the “other-than-honorable” discharges that soldiers who suffer PTSD, sexual assault, and suicide attempts currently face.

Access to Firearms

According to the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 70% of military suicide deaths since 2001 used firearms as a means to suicide. Among civilian suicide deaths, less than 48% involved firearms.

Mental Health Issues, Particularly PTSD

Based on National Center for PTSD research, military members who died by suicide were nearly 13 times more likely to have received a PTSD diagnosis than other personnel during the same time period.

Factors Leading to Increasing Military Suicide Rates

Next, we will examine some of the possible causes that have led to a rise in active military suicides since 2001. The following factors are specific to post-9/11 service members:

Rise in Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Use

In recent decades, the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—more commonly referred to as “homemade bombs”—has resulted in increased incidences of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in military personnel. Brain injuries have been shown to have a far-reaching impact on a person’s life, and increased suicide rates may be linked to catastrophic injuries such as these. Intensified stress, fear, and burnout due to the prevalence of IEDs in modern warfare has also negatively impacted soldiers’ mental health.

Advances in Medical Technology

As counterintuitive as it may sound, some advances in life-saving medical technology may actually be increasing suicide rates. The Brown-published research study noted that injured service members are now able to survive greater physical traumas than those of years past. However, while survival rates may have increased, the chronic pain survivors may be forced to endure can result in diminished quality of life.

Longer War Times

Due to the extended length of recent war activities, service members face a greater likelihood of redeployment—even after injury. Longer wars mean more exposure to combat and greater risk of PTSD. Since September 11, 2001, service members survive serious wounds at a rate 18% higher than Vietnam or Gulf War veterans. And at least one-third of injured service members are redeployed at least once.

Diminished Public Approval of Military Operations

Whether it’s ignorance of, disinterest in, or outright antipathy toward military affairs, the predominant public attitude toward the military has shifted over the past half-century. In addition to the stresses and traumas of military service, many service members also feel the burden of dealing with stereotypes or public opinions placed upon them by their roles. Feelings of depression and even a sense of uselessness, purposelessness, or moral injury have been reported by those who served in the military.

Ways You Can Help Prevent Military Suicides

For help for yourself or someone you know, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In an emergency situation, or if you suspect someone’s life may be in immediate danger, call 911. Please take some time to look into the following resources if you believe you or someone in your life may be at risk of suicide:

If you are the loved one of a military service member or veteran, it is important to know and be able to recognize the signs of PTSD in military service members. If a VA doctor is negligent in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders, patients may end up needing to file a VA tort claim against the healthcare providers who neglected their duty to treat a serious condition that could lead to self-harm.

How the Law Is Involved

Over the past several years, the seriousness of suicide as a risk to veterans has been acknowledged through multiple actions on the part of the federal government. In 2019, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act—a suicide prevention effort aimed at increasing veterans’ access to mental health care—was passed into law. This was followed by The Veterans COMPACT Act of 2020, focused on emergency suicide care and suicide prevention. In 2021, a targeted Veteran Suicide Prevention Act was proposed, advising that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs review whether or not suicide victims had been prescribed medication by VA physicians to address mental health trauma. Again in 2021, the Save our Servicemembers (SOS) Act was proposed as an emergency response to rising suicide rates.

As members of the legal profession, we have a responsibility to protect others, especially those who protect us. Active duty military service members who have experienced medical malpractice—whether in the form of a failure to diagnose, misdiagnosis, wrongly-prescribed medication, or neglect of dangerous mental health symptoms—have legal options. The SFC Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act of 2019 allows active military service members to file medical malpractice claims against the Department of Defense for injuries and deaths caused by DoD hospital negligence. If your situation involves a mistreated military service member who was not provided the support they need, reach out to a law firm with experience fighting for the rights of military service members. We may be able to help you and your family.


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Tad Thomas - Trial Lawyer

Tad Thomas

Managing Partner

Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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