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Pentagon chief ‘deeply concerned’ by alarming surge in suicide deaths among US troops

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Vinnie Parlapore, a US retired Air Force master sergeant, looks at a display of military members who have lost their lives to suicide. The display was part of LUTZapalooza at Markham Park in Sunrise, Florida, on Feb. 8, 2020. (Via South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The Pentagon chief has expressed serious concern about an alarming spike in suicide deaths among US forces.

“I’m deeply concerned about the suicide rates, not only here but across the force,” Lloyd Austin said on a visit to the Eielson air base in Alaska. 

“One loss by suicide is too many. While we’re working hard on this problem, we have a lot more to do,” he added.

In 2020, 385 active-duty soldiers died by suicide, marking a sharp increase from the 326 cases reported by the Pentagon in 2018.

A USA Today report said more than 90% of those US forces who died by suicide were men, especially those who serve combat units, such as infantry. And, most of them are young, aged 18 to 26.

The Pentagon said stressors typically challenging military personnel were augmented by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic last year, adding that it necessitated some changes in the mental health services offered.

A senior Pentagon official has said unpredictability of life in the US military and the constant demand from commanders for overseas assignments have frayed the force.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to USA Today, a Pentagon official cited commanders’ increasingly aggressive demands for more forces, largely due to the rise of Chinese influence.

Pentagon chief Austin has referred to China as the Pentagon's "pacing challenge," warning that the military needs to maintain its edge over Beijing. 

China spent $261 billion on defense in the year 2019 compared with the humongous $732 billion spending by the US, but the growing clout of Chinese dragon seems to have frightened the US officials.

Since 30 December, at least six soldiers have died by suicide in Alaska as troops there encounter harsh weather conditions, geographic and social isolation, as well as frequent training and deployment.

US soldiers also face high costs of living, prevalent alcohol abuse and sleep disorders.

In a visit earlier this year to Alaska’s Fort Wainwright army base, army officials promised to make significant changes aimed at improving soldiers’ quality of life. 

In February, a command team from a Hawaiian airbase visited Fort Wainwright to hold sensing sessions, in which troops discussed mental health, loss and grief, came after two incidents of suicide on Fort Wainwright.

Since President George W. Bush launched his global War on Terror in 2001, an estimated 5,116 active-duty personnel died by suicide.

Between 2011 and 2020, 1,193 National Guard service members and 1,607 Reserve component service members also took their own lives.

The suicide death toll among veterans of those wars was estimated at 22,261. The numbers totals 30,177 – more than four times higher than the combat deaths, which was 7,057. 

A new US study by the Costs of War Project points to a number of possible causes, including the public's declining approval of post-9/11 wars and public indifference to US wars. 

The study said 36 percent of Americans call the war in Afghanistan a mistake, according to a YouGov poll, and 58 percent approve of withdrawing troops by September 11, 2021.

Other suicide factors are specific to the kind of wars that the US has been waging over the past two decades. The wide use of improvised explosive devices against US troops has caused an increase in traumatic brain injuries and polytrauma. 

The US study also said, “As we come closer to the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we must reflect on the mental health cost of the Global War on Terror. The human cost for our veterans and service members far outweighs even the most crippling financial costs we have endured to send them to war.”

In his visit to Eielson airbase in Alaska, the Pentagon chief called on the army to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues.

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