Veteran and service member suicide is a problem no single approach will solve, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told a Georgetown University audience Wednesday.
The secretary, who is expected to retire this month, delivered a speech on leadership and government this morning and then took audience questions.
One student introduced himself as a second-year master’s student in foreign service and public policy programs, an Army veteran and a member of the Maryland Air National Guard. He asked what “the Department of Defense and our lawmakers” can do to combat suicide among veterans.
“It is one of the most tragic issues that we deal with right now in the military,” the secretary responded. The rate of suicide among troops and former troops mirrors that of greater society, he noted, but added, “There is no question in my mind that part of this is related to the stress of war over the last 10 years, [and] the fact that we have deployed people time and time again.”
Repeated combat zone assignments keep troops away from their families, Panetta said. He said military leaders must therefore ensure they give recently deployed service members the opportunity “to get their feet back on the ground, … to reboot themselves into society,” when they return.
Beyond the rate of incidence, several other common factors link service member and veteran suicides with those of their civilian counterparts, the secretary told his audience. He summed them up as “stress and the general society.”
“Financial problems, family problems, drinking problems, drug problems,” Panetta said. “All of that contributes to the growing rate of suicide.”
The secretary noted that he was raised to see suicide as something “you just don’t do.”
“You have to confront … the challenges you have to confront, but today there seems to be an attitude that … suicides are a way out,” he said. “And they aren’t – they aren’t.”
What DOD can do and is doing is “operate on every front” against suicide, Panetta said. The department, he said, “is managing deployment rotations on a “rational basis,” hiring more health care professionals, educating service members to watch for and respond to signs of suicidal ideas in their fellow troops, and ensuring help is accessible when it’s needed.
“All of us need to be part of the answer to … make sure that this does not happen,” Panetta said. “There’s no ‘silver bullet’ here. I wish there was.”
It’s very important, the secretary said, to “convey a message to those men and women in uniform that we treasure – we treasure – those who are willing to put their lives on the line. We are not going to take them for granted.”