Commentary: Troop deployments and suicide rates

President Obama's decision on deploying more troops to Afghanistan has been complicated by an ugly reality: suicide.

In recent years, the Army has struggled with growing numbers of soldiers who've taken their own lives. The numbers spell out the problem starkly. In 2005, the Army's suicide rate per 100,000 soldiers was 12.7. In 2006, it rose to 15.3. In 2007, 16.8. In 2008 it hit 20.2.

That 2008 figure crossed a disturbing threshold. It was the first time since the Vietnam War era that the suicide rate among soldiers exceeded the rate among their civilian counterparts.

This might not seem remarkable, given the often harsh conditions of military life. But prospective soldiers are screened – in recruitment and in training – for their capacity to cope with those conditions. Going into active duty, their mental health is much better, on average, than that of their civilian peers. Something is deeply amiss when the comparison goes upside down.

The obvious explanation is war. Combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan run as long as 15 months, and many soldiers don't get enough down time between deployments. Combat leads to stress disorders and depression as reliably as rain leads to wetness.

Combine that with other problems found in the ranks – marital stress, alcohol abuse, financial difficulties and service injuries – and you've got an unusual number of soldiers suffering unusual distress.

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