The suicide rate for active-duty U.S. military members in 2018 was the highest on record since the Defense Department began tracking self-inflicted deaths in 2001.
Officials said Thursday that 2018's rate of 24.8 deaths per 100,000 service members is comparable to age and gender-adjusted civilian rates, but added that fact is "hardly comforting," given that "the numbers aren't moving in the right direction."
A new DoD publication, the 2018 Annual Suicide Report, released Thursday confirms that 325 active-duty personnel took their own lives last year, up from 285 in 2017 and 280 the previous year.
According to the report, the National Guard, which experienced 135 suicides in 2018, had the highest suicide rate among the three components, including the Reserves. Its rate of 30.6 per 100,000 was higher than the civilian rate when adjusted for age and gender.
Across the Reserves, 81 members died by suicide, a rate of 22.9 per 100,000.
The Pentagon has long struggled to address the problem of suicides in the ranks, attacking the issue with renewed fervor in 2012, when the number of deaths, 319, and the rate, 22.7 per 100,000, were the highest since the DoD began tracking the data following the 9/11 attacks.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that the current trend is a result of being "caught up in what some call a national epidemic of suicide among our youth."
"And not just our youth, but it's something we continue to wrestle with," he said, speaking to reporters following a visit to Norfolk, Virginia, where investigators are looking into the deaths of three sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush.
Pentagon officials speaking Thursday did not try to explain why service members die by suicide but said the data is needed to better understand behaviors and create programs to prevent the deaths.
"Supporting our military personnel is not only a critical mission to the Department of Defense, it is a sacred obligation," said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director for Force Resiliency in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. "We in the department must do all we can to prevent this tragedy, and we will use the information from this report to inform our efforts."
Military suicides began increasing in 2006 and climbed to a new record, 310, in 2009. They leveled off for several years before climbing again, reaching another high in 2012. At that time, leaders threw their focus behind suicide prevention programs and outreach; in 2014, they implemented policies that allowed commanders to discuss access to firearms with at-risk personnel and be equipped to handle voluntary surrender of weapons at a service member's request.
But firearms continue to be the most common method of suicide, according to the report, with 60% of active-duty personnel, 62% of reserve members and nearly 70% of National Guardsmen taking their own lives with a gun.
Pentagon officials said that, since suicide is often an impulsive decision, the department is developing initiatives on "safe storage of lethal means," including firearms and medications.
"One of the initiatives we are working toward is chaplains providing counseling on access to lethal means training, in addition to other gate-keepers," said Karen Orvis, director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office.
The Army, the largest military service, had the highest number of active-duty suicides in 2018 with 139. That translates into a rate of 24.8 per 100,000.
But the smallest military service, the Marine Corps, actually had the highest rate: Its 58 deaths resulted in a rate of 31.4 per 100,000 -- higher than the National Guard's overall rate.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said Thursday the service has taken a two-pronged approach to address suicide, including having an open dialogue about stress, resiliency and wellness, and educating Marines and family members to recognize and reduce risk factors associated with suicide.
But, he added, service members must "work together to be engaged in each other's lives."
"Just as we talk about physical fitness, marksmanship, training and education -- Marines must also be comfortable discussing life's struggles, mental wellness and suicide. We must create a community where seeking help and assistance are simply normal, important decisions Marines and sailors make," he said in a statement.
Likewise, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and newly confirmed Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy issued a statement saying they believe that "engaged leadership, training and education will promote a supportive environment and prevent high-risk behaviors."
"Leadership at every level must build cohesive teams of teams supporting our brothers and sister to our left and right. The more we know about each other, the better equipped we are to recognize a call for help," they said.
Lynn Kirby, an Air Force spokeswoman, noted that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein held a "tactical pause" in August to ensure that commands focused on their troops and well-being.
"Suicide is the leading cause of death in the Air Force, and we are committed to considering any action that provides hope for preventing suicide," she said.
Previous reports released by the DoD indicate that deployments, even those in support of combat operations, do not increase suicide risk. Another misconception about military suicides is that mental illness plays a role, Van Winkle said.
"This not true in our military or civilian population. More broadly, we know that when access to one lethal means is removed, someone at risk is unlikely to substitute," she said.
With the new report, the Defense Department also released its first-ever findings of suicides among military family members. According to the report, there were 186 suicides among spouses and dependents in 2017 -- the only year for which data was available.
The suicide rate for spouses was 11.5 per 100,000 population, with the rate being 29.4 per 100,000 for male spouses and 9.1 per 100,000 for female spouses.
The rate of suicide among military dependents younger than 23 was 3.8 per 100,000 dependents. For males, the rate was 5.2 per 100,000, significantly lower than the U.S. civilian rate of 9.3 per 100,000 for men and boys under age 23.
As with military members, the primary method of suicide for both military spouses and dependents in 2017 was a firearm.
The Pentagon each year conducts an in-depth study of every suicide in the ranks. The most recent, the 2017 Department of Defense Suicide Event Report, released earlier this year found that those who took their own lives were likely to be under age 25, white, junior enlisted personnel.
The suicide rate was highest for divorced troops; those who worked in administrative, mechanical or electrical repair roles; and those who had never deployed.
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