A double homicide followed by the suicide of a Marine in his barracks Thursday night highlights a problem with which the US military has been grappling mightily: active-duty personnel who take their own lives.
The shootings occurred at the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, in which a fight broke out, reportedly over a relationship dispute. The victims included two men and a woman, all Marines.
The gunman was pronounced dead of an apparent inflicted gunshot wound, according to a Marine Corps statement.
By Friday morning the base returned to normal operations, but the investigation surrounding the incident will no doubt include the prevalence of suicide within the ranks of the military.
The extent to which the Pentagon is grappling with the specter of suicide within its ranks was apparent Thursday, during a congressional hearing on the topic scheduled in part to explain why the Army had a record 324 suicides last year.
For the active duty in particular, those figures rose to 183 in 2012, up from 148 in 2009.
As with the reported suicide Thursday, “many” troops who have taken their lives “had experienced a failed intimate relationship,” Jacqueline Garrick, acting director of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, which was created in 2011, told lawmakers Thursday, before the tragedy at Quantico unfolded.
Indeed, in nonfatal suicide attempts, most of which occur in Caucasian men under age 25, “slightly more than half had a failed intimate relationship,” she said.
In other cases, “legal or financial issues were present,” Ms. Garrick added in testimony before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
In most cases, service members use firearms to complete a suicide, and they tend to do it at home, Garrick told lawmakers.
Beyond that, however, many of the surrounding causes remain a troubling mystery to Pentagon officials.
“The majority of service members did not communicate their intent for self-harm nor did they have a known history of behavioral health problems,” she said. “Less than half of those who died by suicide had deployed, and a small number were involved with direct combat.”
Even as Pentagon officials grapple with the mental well being of troops within US ranks, they express concern about the potential impact of the "sequester" cuts on their ability to serve the needs of troops.
Indeed, 60 percent of the health-care force in the military, including some 4,500 behavioral health providers, are civilians under the threat of mandatory furlough as the Pentagon faces an automatic series of budget cuts, which under sequestration kicked in earlier this month.
The Pentagon just announced that it would suspend issuing furlough notices for another two weeks, but senior Pentagon officials remain concerned.
Troops “might have to wait longer to get an appointment; they might have to close the clinic down an hour earlier,” Col. Rebecca Porter, chief of behavioral health at the Office of the Army Surgeon General, said at a Defense Writers Group discussion earlier this month.
“It’s not the quality of care that we expect to be impacted,” she warned, “but the availability and access to it.”