After years of urging from support groups, the Defense Department has taken the first steps toward setting up a system to track suicides among military family members.
In a report to Congress last week, the Defense Suicide Prevention Office acknowledged the military currently "does not have the ability to investigate, monitor, or receive notification of military family member deaths," according to the report entitled "Suicides and Military Families."
The military said it was possible to collect and analyze data on suicides among immediate military family members, but "it would require leveraging existing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is currently not available."
The report, first reported by CNN, estimated that it would take 18-24 months to set up a tracking system with a projected cost of $681,600 for the first year and $502,200 for each additional year.
Under the Prevention Office proposal, data bought from the CDC would be combined with DoD data and then aggregated into an already-existing DoD Suicide Data Repository (SDR).
The result would be to allow the military "to conduct analyses of family member deaths by suicide, and focus strategies for increasing resilience in military family members," the report said.
However, the report cautioned that "even with CDC and NCHS data combined with DoD's, the Department can never be confident in having a fully complete picture of military family suicides, as there are a number of complicating factors regarding how civilian deaths are reported."
The report, which was requested by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, followed on repeated warnings from the National Military Family Association, the Code of Support Foundation and others that the military was ignoring the growing problem of suicides among military family members who share the stress of 12 years of war and multiple deployments.
The support groups also noted that mental health professionals increasingly had recognized the existence of "secondary PTSD that family members can experience when their servicemember is troubled."
In 2011, Deborah Mullen, wife of the then-Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, spoke out about the military's lack of family support services and a system for tracking military family suicides.
"I was stunned when I was told there are too many to track," Mullen said in calling on the services to confront the problem and implement prevention measures with spouses in mind.
"There's another side to this and that's family members who commit suicide," Mullen said. "It's our responsibility. These are our family members."
She also noted the stigma problem in getting treatment: "Spouses tell me all the time that they want to get mental health assistance. As incorrect as this is, they really do believe if they seek help it will have a negative impact on their spouse's military career."
Since there are no reliable statistics on military family suicides, the reporting of incidents in which wives, husbands, sons and daughters have taken their own lives has been left to local authorities.
In one incident in 2011, police in Tampa, Fla., reported that Julia Powers Schenecker, the wife of an Army colonel at the Tampa headquarters of Central Command, had left a note saying that she was going to kill herself and her children.
She allegedly then shot to death her 13-year-old son on the way to soccer practice and drove to the family's home, where she shot to death her 16-year-old daughter. Police arrived at the family home and found Schenecker alive and covered with blood. She reportedly told police that the children had been "mouthy."
In another incident in April 2010, Sheena Griffin phoned her estranged husband, a Fort Hood, Texas, soldier, and threatened to kill herself. Her husband, who was getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan, called police.
When sheriff's deputies arrived, they found the family's home engulfed in flames, Inside they found the couple's two boys, aged 8 and 9, dead from gunshots. Their 36-year-old mother was on the floor, also dead of a gunshot wound.