Jodee and Steve Watelet pose for a portrait in their home in Mesquite, Nev., on Friday, May 20, 2022. / Photo by Miranda Alam for Voice of San Diego
Jodee and Steve Watelet pose for a portrait in their home in Mesquite, Nev., on Friday, May 20, 2022. Their son took his own life in 2020. He was in the Navy. / Photo by Miranda Alam for Voice of San Diego

In 2010 the Secretary of Defense formed a task force “to examine matters relating to prevention of suicide by members of the Armed Forces.” The task force, comprised of civilian and military experts, arrived at 49 findings and offered 76 specific recommendations, informed by a comprehensive review of the latest science, information gathered from visits to military installations, best practices in clinical care, and broad input from multiple constituents.  

The recommendations offered were specific, detailed, and targeted, exactly what was needed at the time to take on the challenge of suicide prevention in the military. Here we are, 12 years later, and the Secretary of Defense has empaneled another committee to do precisely the same thing. As noted in the Secretary’s announcement, the committee will conduct a review to “address and prevent suicide in the military, pursuant to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022.”

The first thing this latest iteration needs to do is answer why the first task force didn’t have any impact, despite doing excellent work and offering detailed and specific recommendations for much needed change, across almost every domain of military life. In the decade since the 2010 report, suicide rates in the U.S. Armed Forces have increased from 17.5 per 100,000 active-duty troops to 28.7 per 100,000 in 2020, a 64 percent relative increase.  Since that first report was filed, the data and underlying scientific foundation have only become more compelling, clear and specific. Simply put, the most efficient move for the Department of Defense would simply be to implement the recommendations offered a decade ago.

So, why haven’t the 2010 recommendations been implemented and why has the problem only gotten worse?  As Peter Drucker, who was a critical voice on institutional and business culture, said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  The central challenge targeting military suicide is a cultural one.

There are many reasons the U.S. military is the most effective on the planet. A strong warrior culture and rigorous training, driven by a clear statement of values and expectations is essential to military success in combat operations. At the heart of that culture is the Department of Defense value that everyone in uniform must live by “duty, integrity, ethics, honor, courage, and loyalty.”

As I mentioned previously to the Voice of San Diego, “As a warrior culture, it’s about selfless sacrifice and personal courage – the team being more important than the individual. But if you feel like you can’t hold up your end of the bargain or feel like you’re the weakest link in the chain, it amplifies feelings of failure and shame.”

The landscape of military service is a remarkably challenging one. Two decades of wartime tempo will expectedly translate those challenges into emotional and psychological problems for a percentage of those in uniform, regardless of individual resilience, strength or courage. As warrior culture has demonstrated in compelling fashion over the past decade, it’s not well equipped to help those experiencing emotional and psychological turmoil. 

So, what have we learned over the past decade since the original report was filed?  First, that suicide in the military will continue to be a tragic and serious challenge unless a concerted effort is made to change elements of the very culture that exacerbates the problem. Second, that task force and committee reports don’t change culture. And finally, that the cultural change needed will require a new perspective, one informed by something other than the data we already know and understand. 

Michael David Rudd

Michael David Rudd, Ph.D., ABPP is Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, Director, Rudd Institute for Veteran and Military Suicide Prevention,...

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  1. While this article is limited to only active-duty military, it’s also true that EX-military also have a higher suicide rate than the general population. But seldom mentioned are three other factors.

    1. Most ex-military (as well as active-duty military) are men. On average, men have a much higher suicide rate than women.

    2. Veterans are more senior than the general population. The suicide rate for all seniors is higher than the general population.

    3. There are about 18 million ex-military folks in our country. When discussing just raw suicide numbers (common to some suspect fundraising pleas), the number of suicides always must be considered against the size of the ex-military population. (the VOSD did not commit this transgression).

  2. Now take a look at this.

    I find it borderline infuriating that the author of that piece quoted someone asking about the sustainability of the all volunteer military force. So if you can’t demonstrate to young men and women to serve, let’s draft them and force them to do it against their will. What do you think that will do do the suicide rates? I’m just thinking out loud, but do you think it would be a good idea to lead with integrity and convince people to serve instead of forcing them to serve under incompetent leadership?

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