There has been a lot of debate over remarks Donald Trump made about our veterans and PTSD. He was accused of saying many veterans were weak and unfit, leading to a rise in PTSD. In reality, Trump was misquoted by the media, although no one should be surprised by this.
Although The Donald didn’t say it, there is some truth to the accusations that some military members are more susceptible to PTSD than others. Although PTSD numbers are hard to come by, suicide numbers are much easier, and I think we can safely say that trends in suicide will probably closely resemble suicide trends.
To start analyzing, we need to know what the military suicide rate is. Historically, we can get some data for the 80s and 90s:
Source: National Mortality Profile of Active Duty Armed Forces
But that was the 90s, and things are different now. A more recent look can be found in a RAND study:
Taken at face value, and compared to a national average of 10 suicides per 100,000 people, it looks like active duty military are killing themselves 50% more than normal.
But what is normal? The population of America is about 50/50 male/female, yet the military is primarily male, and weighted towards the 18-25 year old crowd. Conveniently, these people have a particularly high average suicide rate that hovers around 20-25 per 100,000. When compared to that, the military rate is actually much lower than normal.
But what about that rise? It’s pretty obvious that from 2006 we see a rise in suicide rates. Obviously the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking a toll on troops.
But the timing doesn’t make sense. Afghanistan casualties were fairly steady up to 2008. Casualties in Iraq were already steady by 2006, and in fact went down in 2008 onwards, yet the suicide rate continued rising. And when the Army looked into it, a full one-third of the suicides had no deployment history. The wars causing the rise in suicides doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.
This is where the insider piece helps. As a Navy guy stationed previously at an Army base, I couldn’t help but notice with disgust the number of fat Army troops walking around. This wasn’t simply inter-service rivalry. I looked into it, and found the Army was waiving body fat requirements more so in 2006 and onwards in order to meet an increase in end strength. Local unit commanders confirmed that it wasn’t just body fat. Non-violent felonies, mental health issues, and all sorts of other conditions that the Army would previously screen out were being waived.
So what happens when you are no longer taking from the best part of the population, and instead are taking more average people? In the Army’s case, you get more average-people problems. The suicide rate rose to the average 18-25 year old male rate.
I’ll go out on a limb here. While PTSD can strike anyone, it is far less likely to strike the average soldier we recruited in 2002 than the soldier recruited in 2007. We had to lower recruiting standards to fill a wartime need, and we did it without providing the proper medical support for those people. As a nation, at some point we will need to come to grips with that decision.
Which means Donald Trump was right when he said
“when you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it. But a lot of people can’t handle it. And they see horror stories. They see events that you couldn’t see in a movie, nobody would believe it.”
If we want to help our veterans struggling with PTSD, let’s start by using statistics to help us tackle the right problem first. Stop blaming the wars and start fixing the poor choices we made as a nation.
This post solely represents the view of the author and does not represent the official views of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other branch of the US government.
If you’re a great American and want to help fight suicide and PTSD, you can donate to a variety of places, or go volunteer at your local VA hospital. If you know someone that needs help, tell them to call the Military One Source Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, because one suicide is one too many.