The Young Military Casualties We Don't Talk About

May 22nd 2015

Laura Donovan

Rusty McAlpin had been out of the Army for four months when he gulped down nearly a bottle of vodka and committed suicide using his parents' .357 Magnum.

"He never wanted to seem weak," his mother Bonnie told The Los Angeles Times about her 26-year-old son's suicide, which took place after he expressed concern to his family that seeking counseling would harm his chances of working at the Department of Homeland Security. Living at home in his twenties also hurt his confidence and made him question whether he'd done the right thing when he left the service.

Unfortunately, Alpin's story isn't unusual among young veterans. According to the Veterans Affairs Department (VA), 22 veterans commit suicide every day, and the number of suicides among male veterans ages 18 to 24 increased by a rate of 33 per 100,000 from 2009 to 2011. The VA's 2014 study found that female veterans and male veterans in the 18 to 24 age group had the highest likelihood of taking their own lives. Veteran suicides increased by 44 percent for men under 30. Female veterans experienced an 11 percent suicide increase as well.

“Their rates are astronomically high and climbing,” said Jan Kemp, study lead and the VA’s National Mental Health Director for Suicide Prevention. “That’s concerning to us."

Why young veterans commit suicide.

Though Kemp told Stars and Stripes that the cause of the increase in young military suicides was unclear, she said assimilating to civilian life, war injuries such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and leaving military careers can take a toll on young veterans.

The report notes that suicide rates went down when veterans asked for help from the VA, but Kemp says that getting veterans to seek assistance is the hard part, as there's still a stigma surrounding mental health issues.

“What we’re seeing is that getting help does matter,” Kemp said. “Treatment does work.”

A 2009 British study observed military discharge records over the course of about 20 years and saw that veterans under 24 were up to three times more likely to commit suicide than civilian males of the same age. Researchers found that veterans are most likely to commit suicide within two years of being discharged. Study author Professor Nav Kapur told The Guardian that suicide rates might be so high among young veterans because young people, generally, are more vulnerable to suicide.

"One explanation for the higher suicide risk among young ex-military personnel is that those entering military service at a young age are already vulnerable to suicide, which would explain why those serving for a relatively short period of time before being discharged were most likely to take their own lives," Kapur said. "A second explanation is the difficulty a minority of individuals experience making the transition to civilian life. However, a third possibility that we could not explore in this study is that exposure to adverse experiences during military service or active deployment played a role in the two to three-fold increase in suicide among young veterans, although many of those most at risk had not completed basic training and therefore had not deployed overseas."

Delays in getting treatment.

The findings revealed that it was unlikely that veterans who committed suicide had sought psychological help in the year prior to their death. Less than a quarter of those under 24 had met with a counselor.

Those who reach out to mental health professionals often face delays in receiving care. In 2010, 16 veterans on a waiting list for mental health services at the Atlanta VA Medical Center attempted suicide, according to findings from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A 2013 study by the Institute of Medicine revealed that nearly half the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan faced unsatisfactory care from the VA and the Department of Defense.

“Although several federal agencies are actively trying to address the support needs of current and former service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as their families, the response has been slow and has not matched the magnitude of this population’s requirements as many cope with a complex set of health, economic, and other challenges,” said George Rutherford, the report's co-author.