Former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) underwent intense scrutiny by the Senate Armed Services Committee before his potential confirmation as secretary of defense. His testimony was, at best, shaky as he was interrogated on Iran as well as past comments he made about Israel. His testimony was shoddy enough that many Republican senators declared that he lost their vote during these hours in the Senate chambers.
Most questions were nothing more than grandstanding, including a whole section of testimony by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) where ancient comments by Hagel during an obscure Al-Jazeera interview were dissected, out of context, before the committee.
Only Senator Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) brought up the troubling trend of military suicides. While Donnelly deserves our thanks for addressing this issue, getting Hagel to voice his "commitment" to solving the issue is not enough.
In 2012, 295 members of the U.S. military were killed in combat. Shockingly, during that same year, 349 members of the military took their own lives, a rate of almost one a day. This is a record high. Senator Hagel skirted around this issue in his opening statement, when he mentioned his determination to "focus on mental health."
The high rate of military suicides is actually not new, but rather has been building for some time — it was just hidden behind a higher rate of combat deaths. In 2010 and 2011, there were 499 and 417 combat deaths, respectively, while military suicides hovered at around 300 a year. As noted above, combat deaths fell to 295 in 2012. As combat deaths continued to decline, however, U.S. military suicides have risen.
This problem is not relegated to active duty personnel. According to the Center for New American Security, from 2005 to 2010, a service member took his or her own life every 36 hours. Disturbingly, as of 2010, the Department of Veteran Affairs stated that a veteran takes his or her own life every 80 minutes. That breaks down to 18 veterans a day. Those who served in our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan make up 20% of the total suicides in the United States.
As secretary of defense, Senator Hagel would have a responsibility to address this growing tragedy. This year, the National Defense Authorization Act removed a restriction that barred commanders from talking to their troops about their private guns. In 2011, 60% of military personnel who killed themselves used a privately owned weapon. This restriction was a result of the National Rifle Association's lobbying to deny any record being kept of private arms in citizen's hands. Thankfully, Congress understands the need to have an open dialogue between our soldiers, their commanders, and mental health professionals about suicide.
There is evidence that there has been a small, yet considerable, cultural shift inside the Pentagon regarding suicides. Last year, at Pentagon health fairs, trigger locks for guns were given out to prevent these events from occurring.
More should be done. However, not one senator asked Hagel any substantial questions. For instance, the NDAA authorized and called for a "comprehensive suicide prevention policy for the military." Senator Hagel should have been asked to outline what this program would look when and if he is confirmed as secretary of defense. Hagel should also be asked to address his plans to improve overall mental health of our veterans – the ongoing hostage crisis in Alabama involving a Vietnam veteran and a six year old has highlighted this crisis in recent days.
Other nations have dealt with suicides in their armed forces. For instance, in 2006, the Israeli Army decided that soldiers would leave their guns on base when returning home. This resulted in a 60% decline in military suicides in that country. In addition, Israel has put several other preventive measures in place, including education seminars, reduced access to guns for active duty soldiers, and serious protocols to be followed if a soldier is suspected of having suicidal thoughts. Obviously, in the United States, weapons restrictions might not be particularly viable, because many soldiers and veterans have private guns in their homes, but other measures might, in concert, help slow this horrible trend.
At a time when the nation is lessening its active military engagements, a greater focus on the welfare of our soldiers and veterans is needed. Any angle taken to address the question of military suicides would have been refreshing and helpful; instead, we heard a tacit "commitment" to addressing these issues from Senator Hagel in over eight hours of testimony. It is not only saddening, but embarrassing, to think of all the issues that were discussed and rehashed several times during Hagel's hearings, while an issue that affects so many members of our military and their families goes virtually unaddressed.
This article was first published with The Century Foundation.