AUSTIN, Texas - Suicides at Fort Hood plummeted to their lowest level in seven years in 2013, reflecting a military-wide decline that officials and experts say is not yet well understood.
At Fort Hood, where 20 soldiers took their lives in 2012, officials in 2013 recorded five confirmed suicides and two suspected suicides through Dec. 20, according to information obtained by the Austin American-Statesman. That would be the fewest suicides at the massive Army post since 2007, when six soldiers killed themselves. More recent years have seen a surge in suicides at Fort Hood, reaching a high of 22 in 2010.
The 65 percent decline at Fort Hood was sharper than the military-wide drop. A year after setting a grim record with 349 suicides, which outpaced combat deaths, suicides in the first 10 months of 2013 dropped 22 percent throughout the U.S. military, according to numbers reported by The Associated Press.
Experts say the reason for the declines isn't clear. "I wish we knew," said Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah. "It's certainly good news, and we are happy to see the numbers going in a different direction. Many of us are cautiously optimistic, but, we wonder, is it a statistical blip or the first indicator of a new trend?"
Bryan said more research is needed to determine whether the military's suicide prevention programs are helping reduce suicides. The answer probably won't be clear for a year or two until researchers have more data, he said.
The declines came as the Army began reducing its fighting force, though cuts so far probably haven't been large enough to significantly affect the suicide numbers, experts say. Fort Hood, which has more than 40,000 soldiers, could lose up to 2,900 soldiers, or 7 percent of its troops, by 2015.
The declines also came as combat operations in Afghanistan were largely ended and American troops handed off more responsibility to their Afghan counterparts. The nation's longest war is scheduled to formally end at the end of this year.
But officials and experts say the decline in suicides and the end of combat aren't necessarily related, especially since mental health trauma can take months or years to manifest.
"Psychological injuries don't just disappear because the United States has changed foreign policy," Bryan said. "It's not quite as simple as saying that we are drawing down in Afghanistan so the numbers will go down."
About half of service members who commit suicide military-wide have never deployed, although the percentage of combat veterans who have committed suicide has been higher at Fort Hood, one of the Army's busiest deployment hubs. Military leaders point to a toxic stew of financial, relationship and mental health conditions as driving the suicide problem.
Fort Hood leaders say they will continue to focus on the array of suicide prevention programs and innovations that officials have implemented there and throughout the Army, including embedding uniformed behavioral health specialists with units and providing intensive classes dubbed "suicide first aid."
"Every suicide is one too many, and there remains more work to be done to support our soldiers and address their needs in times of challenge and crisis in their lives," said Fort Hood senior commander Maj. Gen. Anthony Ierardi.
Even as suicides fell at Fort Hood, officials say that reported suicide attempts at Fort Hood in the first nine months of 2013 were 25 percent higher than all of 2012. In 2012 through September, Fort Hood saw 60 suicide attempts, along with 260 suicidal "ideations," or reported thoughts of suicide. In 2013 during the same period, there were 75 suicide attempts and 306 ideations.
Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Mark Milley argued last year in the post newspaper, the Fort Hood Sentinel, that the numbers show that soldiers "are beginning to feel more comfortable asking for the help that they need and deserve."
Milley said the increase in reported attempts is evidence that Army efforts to reduce stigma around mental health issues are working. "This shift in attitude is a significant accomplishment, especially for our junior leaders, who have the greatest impact on soldiers' day-to-day lives," he wrote.
Bryan, the researcher, said he hopes that the 2013 reduction in suicides doesn't cause the public to lose focus on the problem. "What many of us are worried about is that as we draw down in Afghanistan, as a whole, society will turn its attention away from military mental health issues," he said. "For many service members, those memories, those life experiences won't disappear overnight."