WASHINGTON // For US troops, less combat is not translating to less stress. Members of the military committed suicide at a record pace last year - almost one per day - and some experts think the trend will grow worse this year.
Pentagon figures obtained show 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year, up from 301 the year before and exceeding the Pentagon's internal projection of 325.
Last year's total is the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001. It exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year.
The Pentagon has struggled to deal with the issue of suicides, which the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, and others have called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is increasingly complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of uniform as defence budgets are cut.
"Now that we're decreasing our troops and they're coming back home, that's when they're really in the danger zone, when they're transitioning back to their families, back to their communities and really finding a sense of purpose for themselves," said Kim Ruocco, whose husband, marine Maj John Ruocco, killed himself in 2005. She directs a suicide-prevention programme for a support group, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
One such case was Army Spc Christopher Nguyen, 29, who killed himself in August. "He was practically begging for help, and nothing was done," said his sister, Shawna Nguyen.
She said he had been suffering from an "adjustment disorder" - a problem of coping with the uncertainties of returning home after three deployments in war zones. She believes the Army failed her brother by not doing more to ensure that he received the help he needed before he became suicidal.
"It's the responsibility of the military to help these men and women," she said. "They sent them over there; they should be helping them when they come back."
David Rudd, a military suicide researcher and dean of the College of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Utah, sees two main categories of troops who are committing suicide at an accelerating pace: Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress or substance abuse; and those who have not gone to war but face troubled personal relationships, money problems or legal woes.
He is concerned that the problem could get worse.
"Actually, we may continue to see increases," he said, since the military is headed for major personnel cuts as budgets shrink. Fear of being compelled to return to civilian society is especially stressful for people whose identity and self-esteem is closely tied to their role in the military, Mr Rudd said.
Military suicides began rising in 2006 and soared to a record 310 in 2009 before levelling off for two years. The Pentagon says that although the military suicide rate has been rising, it remains below that of the civilian population.