Military Faces Suicide ‘Epidemic,’ Panetta Tells Congress

The U.S. military is experiencing a suicide “epidemic,” with as many as 206 service members having taken their own lives this year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers today.

There were 104 confirmed military suicides this year, along with 102 investigations into potential suicides, Panetta testified before a joint hearing of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Veterans Affairs.

“That is an epidemic,” he said. “Something is wrong.”

Panetta said improvements are needed in mental health services for active duty and returning troops. One barrier is that the military doesn’t have enough caregivers to address the shortfalls in this area, he said.

The Pentagon also needs more leadership in the field to spot potential problems, Panetta said.

In 2011 there were 301 military suicides, according to data from Cynthia Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. This year’s total may be as high as one suicide a day, Panetta said during the hearing.

Leaders of both House committees said they were concerned about shortcomings in health care provided by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Those deficiencies are especially worrisome considering that as many as 1 million troops will leave the military by 2017, said Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and the veterans committee’s chairman, and Representative Buck McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the Armed Services panel.

Claims Backlog

The Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to ease a backlog in disability claims and to work with the Pentagon to create a shared electronic health records system, Miller and McKeon said at the hearing.

“The transition that service members experience from active service into civilian life must be improved,” McKeon said at a joint hearing of the committees.

Panetta agreed that the reality is that not all troops are getting the care they deserve.

“This system is going to be overwhelmed,” he said. “Let’s not kid anybody. It’s already overwhelmed.”

Meeting veterans’ needs is part of the costs of war, Panetta said. “It’s not just dealing with the fighting, it’s dealing with the veterans that return,” he said.

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