Suicides among active duty military personnel assigned to US Special Operations Command tripled in 2018, in a disturbing and as yet unexplained spike, CNN has learned.
Special Operations units saw 22 deaths by suicide in 2018, almost triple the eight cases seen in 2017, according to figures provided to CNN by the command.
SOCOM, as it’s known, is the unified combatant command charged with overseeing the various Special Operations component of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force that take on counterterrorism and other specialized missions.
Based in Tampa, Florida, the command includes some of the military’s most highly trained and effective fighting forces, including the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six.
While sudden spikes in suicide rates have been noted in both the military and civilian populations, military officials who spoke to CNN said what has happened at SOCOM is striking. The surge in SOCOM suicides comes as the Marine Corps and Navy are experiencing 10-year highs in the number of suicide deaths.
Even as leaders search for answers, SOCOM is acting to address the problem, instituting training and raising awareness. Commanders in other services are also are addressing the issue with unusual frankness to raise awareness, an effort they hope will lower the toll and help personnel.
SOCOM began tracking suicides in detail in 2012, when there were 23 cases. Self-inflicted deaths steadily declined through 2016, when there were 15 cases, and then dropped to eight in 2017 before spiking last year.
Like other senior commanders across the military, Gen. Tony Thomas, the four-star head of Special Operations Command, is searching for answers. “We are combating this scourge across the Department of Defense,” Thomas told CNN via an email. “We are keenly focused on preventing suicides.”
Thomas favors publicly acknowledging the problem to avoid stigma and working to address root causes. For the Special Operations community, an increase in suicides is exceptionally sensitive because the 70,000-strong force is filled with troops who have multiple overseas combat deployments.
Several officials from across the military’s services said they have not seen a correlation between combat experiences and suicide. Many suicides appear to be related to substance abuse, personal relationship issues or financial problems, officials said.
“We continue to leverage every resource available to ensure our people are mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically prepared for the demanding tasks of war,” Thomas said.
SOCOM is working with researchers, for example, to understand underlying thought processes that lead to suicide and what actions can be taken to mitigate that behavior.
The Special Operations Command is also moving to address the problem by developing training to help troops recognize warning signs and teach them how to respond.
“Key to this approach is promoting healthy, productive behaviors through engaged, compassionate leadership, and personally engaging in positive cognitive processes,” said Kenneth McGraw, a SOCOM spokesman. SOCOM also believes working with family members is vital, because they are often the first to see a change in behavior.
“The training we have developed is intended to teach skills that help participants recognize inflexible, rigid thought patterns and to substitute those patterns of thinking with more adaptable thoughts,” McGraw said.
The training is heavily based in cognitive behavior therapy, and is designed to provide benefit to any participant regardless of their risk for suicide.
Across the services
SOCOM is not alone in the problem. The number of confirmed and suspected suicides in the active-duty Marine Corps and the Navy reached a 10-year high in 2018. Sixty-eight active duty Navy personnel died by suicide in 2018, while the Marine Corps sources say the service is concerned that 2018 may have seen a total of 75 suicides including reserve forces, even with the extensive mental health programs available.
The Marine Corps saw 57 confirmed suicides last year, according to data obtained by CNN. Another 18 deaths among the Marines in the Reserve forces in 2018 either are confirmed to be suicides or their deaths are being investigated as suspected suicides.
Many of the cases are young Marines who have not deployed overseas and have not been in combat — a situation that has been seen in other branches of the military as well.
The Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller recently issued a message with exceptionally blunt language on suicides.
“I am personally compelled to say something about suicide and mental health,” Neller said in a message to the force. “If you need help, please ask/speak up … we will be there for you. Consider the lasting impact on your family, friends, and unit — none of whom will ever truly recover. Don’t choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem that can be resolved with the help of your teammates.”
In the Army, suicides among active duty forces climbed to 138 in 2018, compared to 116 in 2017.
Suicides among Air Force personnel have generally held steady in the last five years, with 61 in the active and reserve force in 2018.
‘We are not satisfied’
“We are not satisfied with flat-lined suicide death numbers,” Brig. Gen. Michael Martin, director of Air Force Integrated Resilience, told CNN. Noting the Air Force strategy for helping military members and their families, he said the goal remains “never losing another Airman to suicide.”
But the devastating scourge of suicide continues even after troops leave service, hitting the veteran community exceptionally hard.
A recent Veterans Affairs department report noted that from 2005 to 2016, veteran suicide rates increased by 25.9 percent. Younger veterans continue to be vulnerable, with suicides among those aged 18 to 34 increasing from 40.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2015 to 45 deaths in 2016.
Congress has grown increasingly concerned that neither the Defense Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs are devoting enough resources to the problem. At the Pentagon, key slots in the Defense Suicide Prevention Office have remained unfilled.
And a group of Democratic senators in December criticized the VA for failing to understand if its own suicide prevention programs were working.
Get and Share Support:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.
The Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line
1-800-273-8255, press 1
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Crisis Text Line
This free text-message service provides 24/7 support to those in crisis. Text 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor right away.