(NaturalNews) A decade of sustained combat operations and the resultant pressure they have placed on military members and their families is taking a deadly toll on the nation's armed forces, particularly the U.S. Army, which has seen record-high suicide rates in 2012, according to Pentagon figures.
What's worse, perhaps, is that despite an end to conflict in Iraq in 2011 and the winding down of combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, new conventional and non-conventional threats are emerging around the world, some in familiar places - the Middle East and North Africa - and others areas like Asia that have been relatively stable for the past several decades, and that won't bode well for a battle weary force that has been pushed to the max for too long as it is.
Al Qaeda and related groups are reasserting themselves in countries like Yemen and Mali; China is emerging as a major competitor and is attempting to alter the balance of power in Asia; at home, the porous southwest border continues to present challenges of its own, acting as a possible conduit for Islamic terrorists and Mexico-based drug cartels that are increasingly using terror-type tactics on both sides of the border to protect lucrative drug, weapons and human trafficking.
Meanwhile, as these threats continue to grow, the U.S. military is shrinking, falling victim to budget cuts in Washington as lawmakers and the Obama administration grapple with declining revenues and rising debt costs. A year ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced troop reductions of about 100,000 personnel, as part of required broader Pentagon budget cuts.
All of this adds up to one sad prospect: as the pace of threats and deployments continues apace, more duty and fewer personnel mean the military's suicide rates aren't likely to drop significantly anytime soon.
'More must be done'
Suicides last year rose dramatically to a record 349, exceeding by far American combat deaths in Afghanistan; some experts think the figures will probably rise in 2013, The Associated Press reported.
Panetta and others have called rising suicide rates in the military an epidemic.
"The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force," AP reported.
The stats themselves don't fully explain why troops are taking their own lives in greater numbers. That said, military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon have acknowledged that much more needs to be done to understand the causes and mitigate the loss of life.
Some in Congress are also pressing for more to be done.
"This is an epidemic that cannot be ignored," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., says. "As our newest generation of service members and veterans face unprecedented challenges, today's news shows we must be doing more to ensure they are not slipping through the cracks."
'We just have to continue to be aware of the risk factors'
Adds Kim Ruocco, director of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a suicide prevention support group she joined after her Marine husband, Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself between Iraq deployments in 2005: "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."
Though suicide prevention has been a high Pentagon priority for a few years, it is obvious much more needs to be done.
"If you have a perfect storm of events on the day with somebody who has high risk factors, it's very difficult to be there every moment, fill every crack, and we just have to continue to be aware of what the risk factors are," Ruocco told AP.
Last year, the Army, the largest branch of service, had by far the largest numbers of suicides at 182. But the Marine Corps, which had seen its rate decline for a couple of years, rose by 50 percent to 48. The Air Force recorded 59, while the Navy had 60.