One every 18 hours.
That’s how often a veteran committed suicide through the first four months of 2013.
It’s a historically staggering rate for the military, and it’s in line with a record-breaking number of military suicides in 2012. In all, 350 active-duty troops committed suicide last year — outpacing the number of casualties in Afghanistan.
And maybe more troubling than the recent rise in suicides is that the Department of Defense still doesn’t know what is causing the surge and, so far, none of its prevention strategies have seemed to deter the trend.
Post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries have been linked to an increased risk of suicide, but 80 percent of the military suicides had never been in combat, according to Pentagon data.
Other factors, such as substance abuse, financial struggles or failed relationships, also can lead to suicide.
Many researchers have concluded that military suicides do not derive from a single cause, but are the result of a web of contributing factors.
AJ Davilia, a combat veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and former executive director of the Oregon Institute of Technology Veterans Association, said suicide prevention efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs are falling on deaf ears.
“In my opinion, they’re not doing the best job they could do,” Davilia said. “They need to figure out a game plan, because things aren’t working out.”
According to Davilia, the VA is employing tactics that work for civilian populations — suicides hotlines, 1-800 numbers to call for telephone counseling, group therapy sessions — but fail to reach veterans, partly because of the macho culture cultivated by the armed forces.
“Combat veterans, we’re stubborn,” Davilia said. “We don’t want to see a doctor, we don’t need to call somebody, that’s our mindset. And if we do, we call our brothers, the people we serve with. No one ever thinks, ‘what was the 800 number again?’ ”
Even a task force on the prevention of suicide by members of the armed forces and created by the Department of Defense in 2010 concluded many suicide prevention efforts were poorly planned or ineffective.
“The task force concluded that the urgency to respond to the challenge of suicide may have driven the Services to deploy many of these initiatives without the benefit of strategic planning, evaluation, standardization, or plans or sustainment,” the report states.
The task force discovered other consequences to the hasty implementation of suicide prevention programs that limit their effectiveness.
“The task force discovered wide variations in the implementation of many initiatives, many programs that overlapped, creating unnecessary inefficiencies, and prevention opportunities that were missed because of gaps between programs,” the report states. “Furthermore, many programs were misunderstood by service members, their families, and commanders in the field.”
Davilia has his own ideas about a solution to military suicides. Rather than point veterans to therapists and behavioral experts, he says veterans are more likely to open up to other veterans.
According to Davilia, the bond between veterans is instant and resolute.
“You can open up about anything you want to, to that other person, without holding back or thinking about holding back because you don’t want to be judged,” Davilia said. “Dealing with other people, there’s only so much you want to say. They’ll sympathize with you, but they won’t understand. You can talk to psychologists and they may think they understand, but they don’t to the full extent.”
By putting veterans in a comfortable setting with people they trust, Davilia thinks discussion of a taboo subject like suicide could come out into the open, especially if those that have contemplated suicide realize they’re not alone.
“No one wants to talk about that, even though I think a lot of people, in some time in their life, have contemplated it,” Davilia said. “At some point, especially combat veterans, they think about it.”
For Davilia, there is a difference between the act of committing suicide and the act of contemplating suicide, but the negative connotations of the act get associated with the thought, so much so that people are reluctant to admit to suicidal urges.
Compounded with the fact that many veterans don’t feel comfortable with the treatment options available through 24-hour counseling hotlines such as Military OneSource, Davilia said that veterans lack the proper channels for discussing their problems.
“I’m not saying that sources are not available, but maybe that they’re not the right sources,” Davilia said. “At some point in the life of someone who committed suicide, they have tried to talk to somebody. The problem is they didn’t find the right person.”
Currently, Davilia is refining his hypothesis that veterans are more likely to open up to other veterans through a master’s program in communication theory. Eventually, he hopes to earn a doctorate and focus his research on veterans with PTSD.
“What we all have in common is that we all cling on to one another, we look at each other as a resource,” Davilia said. “We don’t want to sit down at a table and spill our guts out to someone who hasn’t been through what we have.”