I am a geek. Not the gotta-have-an-iPhone-5-NOW kind of geek but a number-crunching geek. I do computer-assisted investigative reporting. I acquire, compile and analyze data. I search for trends, anomalies and causal relationships.
I have looked for dead people on voter registration rolls and used Census data to find out where single-guys with six-figure incomes live (we didn’t publish that but it’s nice to know anyway.)
You name, I’ve probably analyzed it or thought about analyzing it.
Right now I’m wondering how I can get my hands on data on suicides in the military. We’ve been reading about increasing suicide rates among soldiers and Marines for the last few years. Rates are rising. The Army is so concerned that today the Army has issued a service-wide “stand-down,” ordering soldiers to put aside their usual duties and devote the day to suicide prevention training. This is great news.
However, what I really want to know is why so many soldiers are killing themselves. We keep hearing about multiple tours of duty, the horrors of war, financial and family hardships and substance abuse. Anecdotal evidence. How about we crunch some numbers and see if we can identify trends? Maybe if we analyze these data we can identify those soldiers who are most at risk. Of course, this assumes that the Army is actually collecting these data.
The wheels and queries are spinning in my hypomanic brain. If I had these data today I would spend the day in blissful solitude, searching for answer to these kinds of questions:
Age at enlistment. Age at suicide. Was suicide committed while on active duty? While deployed in combat zone? After discharge? Type of discharge? Length of time between discharge and suicide? Gender. Race. Education. Rank. Branch of service. Years in service. Number of tours. Length of tour. How much time between tours? Marital status. Years married. If divorced, before, after or during active duty? Number of children. Age of children. Did soldier miss birth/pregnancy? Where deployed for each tour? Combat? How many combat tours? Length of tour? Assignment (sniper/cook/transport etc) Injured? Type of injury. Fatalities/injuries in unit. Did soldier witness death/injury? Substance abuse? Family history of substance abuse, mental illness and/or suicide. Family history of military service. Job status. VA benefits? If denied benefits, why? Received mental health counseling? Medications. Illnesses. PTSD? Manner of suicide. Under influence at time of suicide?
Then, I would run cross-tabs: Age by marital status by number of children; Number of combat deployments by substance abuse by marital status. And on and on with the ultimate goal of finding patterns and trends. The more queries I write, the more questions I have, the more answers we find.
Suicide fascinates me because I have tried to kill myself twice. Both attempts were many, many years ago but after working with my therapist on a timeline of my life I could see the intersection between my depression, alcoholism and suicide attempts. Back then, in the 1970’s, we didn’t know as much about depression and alcoholism and how to treat them. We didn’t have all the data and research we have today on teen suicide and the role depression and substance abuse play in those deaths.
Today, we have an opportunity to use the data the military has gathered – and could gather – to find those warning signs and perhaps use them to save a a soldier’s life. I would like to believe that the Army has already done all this research and is now targeting suicide prevention efforts on specific soldiers who may be predisposed to suicide.
During the first seven months of this year, 116 active-duty soldiers took their own lives. That’s a record-setting pace. It needs to stop. I hope today’s stand-down and training works. We will never know about the soldier who did not kill himself because of today’s training. I hope their are many. But we have so much data on those who did take their own lives. Why not use it? Why not make it public?
Why not let me have a crack at it.
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Last reviewed: 28 Sep 2012