In the years since the War on Terror began, suicide has become an ever-present shadow, looming over America’s veteran community.  While the oft-referenced 22 veteran suicides per day isn’t quite accurate, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the corrected figured barely indicates any improvement.  In truth, an average of just about 20 veterans choose to end their own lives each day, and no amount of suicide prevention training can seem to make a dent in that figure.

A number of studies, both funded by the Pentagon and elsewhere, have attempted to bring sense to this tragic development, and a great deal has indeed been learned.  Deployments and the horrors of combat don’t seem to be the root cause of the problem, as non-combat veteran suicide rates continue to pace those of veterans that saw action.  Instead, it seems a number of factors come into play – so many, in fact, that it has proven extremely difficult to establish a profile of the type of veteran that may be susceptible to suicidal ideations.  If you ever wore a pair of general issue boots, you would seem to be at risk.

Active duty suicides, like those of their veteran counterparts, not only continue to befuddle researchers, but pose a serious threat to overall mission readiness.  A whopping 20% of all suicide deaths in the United States come from military personnel and veterans, a comparably much smaller demographic of the total population. The only bright side to this epidemic, is that there is a breadth of data to pull from.

A new Department of Defense study may have identified at least one risk factor that could increase the chances a Soldier, Sailor, or Marine may choose to end their own life. By studying 9,512 suicide attempts by enlisted U.S. Army soldiers between 2004 and 2009, a trend began to emerge.

Dr. Robert Ursano, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, and the director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Department of Defense’s Uniformed Services University, has found that the risk of suicide attempts in a U.S. Army unit increases as the number of suicide attempts made within the unit over the past year rises.  Put plainly, the more people attempt to commit suicide in a unit over the past year, the more likely more will make an attempt in the near future.

Historically, you were protected from suicide when you went in the Army. Rates of suicide were about half of those in the civilian population, and around 2009, they increased to above that of the civilian population and they remained high since then,” said Ursano, who was lead author of the study.

Through analysis of the data provided by the Army’s Study to Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members research project, or STARRS, Ursano found that a soldier assigned to a unit with one or more suicide attempts during the previous year demonstrated a statistically higher likelihood that he or she would make an attempt themselves.  As the number of suicides over the past year increases, so too does the likelihood that new soldiers to the unit will make an attempt on their own life.

Unlike veteran suicides, combat arms occupations seem to be the hardest hit in terms of how other suicides impact a soldier’s likelihood to make an attempt on his or her own life.  An infantryman assigned to a unit with five suicide attempts in the last year is nearly twice as likely to make a suicide attempt than a soldier assigned to a unit with none.  In any occupational specialty, being assigned to a unit that has had a suicide attempt within 12 months increases a soldier’s chances of falling victim to the same senseless act by as much as 18.2 percent; “indicating that, if the risk associated with units that had at least one past-year significant attempt could be reduced to those with no attempts, 18.2% of attempts would not occur,” the researchers wrote in the study.