WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, 2010 - A silent killer is rapidly infiltrating the military, claiming lives at an alarming rate each year.
It does not discriminate, taking aim at the young and old, male and female -- from the battle-hardened soldier to the new recruit.
Military suicides have more than doubled in the Army, exceeding the national average over the past five years, and leaders are redoubling efforts to figure out why.
"It's an area that can't get enough focus right now," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. "When we're losing as many lives as we are, it is a crisis we have to continue to address".
In an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service, Mullen and his wife, Deborah, talked about what it will take to stop troops and families from taking their own lives.
"It's a very difficult, vexing, complex problem and one that leadership has to spend an awful lot of time on to try to figure out," Mullen said. "It's one that in the country is not well understood; therefore, [it's] one in the military that isn't understood".
While top leaders are struggling to find answers, military suicides have reached a critical point, the chairman said. Last year, suicide claimed 309 troops, and in 2008, 267 servicemembers committed suicide, according to a Defense Department task force. From 2005 to 2009, more than 1,100 servicemembers took their own lives, an average of one suicide every 36 hours, the task force said.
Some reports attribute the spike to multiple deployments and long family separations. The majority of suicides do take place among servicemembers who have deployed, Mullen said. Still, a considerable number occur among those who haven't deployed, he added.
Complicating the issue is a delay in symptoms for those who have served in combat, Mullen said. In many cases, post-traumatic stress symptoms don't reveal themselves until months or years later, and a servicemember may be discharged by that time and back in a civilian community without the same level of support. The military needs to find ways to track those servicemembers so they receive the support they need, he said.
"A significant amount of work needs to be done on the prevention aspect of [suicide] so we don't get to the point where men and women would consider doing this," he said.
Leaders also must gain an understanding of the problem's scope, including the signs, symptoms and vulnerable population, he said.
"More than anything else, I think, military leaders have to lead," Mullen said. Many leaders have had challenges themselves, he noted, and the way they address those challenges, seeking help when needed, can set the example for others.
The military also must work to end the stigma that's preventing people from seeking help early on, Mullen said, including family members afraid to raise a red flag.