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Military suicide rate hit record high in 2012

Service members committed suicide during 2012 at a record pace: more than 349 took their own lives across the four branches, or one every 25 hours, a Department of Defense spokesperson confirmed Monday.

The Army sustained the heaviest suicide toll at 182, a dark tally that — as NBC News reported Jan. 3 — marked another frightening first as soldier suicides last year outpaced the 176 Army members who were killed in combat while serving Operation Enduring Freedom, according to Pentagon officials.

During 2012, there also were 60 suicides among active-duty members of the Navy, 59 in the Air Force and 48 in the Marine Corps. Throughout the U.S. military, suicides increased by nearly 16 percent from 2011 to 2012, figures show. The Department of Defense has been issuing annual reports that track suicides since 2008, said spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith.

“We are deeply concerned about suicide in the military, which is one of the most urgent problems facing the department,” Smith said in a prepared news release. “Our most valuable resource within the department is our people. We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military.”

The continuing rise in active-duty suicides coincides with a bevy of new initiatives and programs within the military aimed to stem the epidemic. For example, a crisis number has been launched for any active-duty member experiencing suicidal thoughts to dial, or for military family members to call if they spot a mental-health disaster looming within their home: 1-800-273-8255.

“This happens almost every month when they come out with the suicide numbers: (a flurry of media stories and public vows to immediately solve the problem), so I don’t want to get stuck on the number. But it’s too high and clearly it’s not a good trend,” said Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of Code of Support Foundation, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit that advocates for needs of those in the military community, including military families.

“We have a lot of organizations both within the government and within the nonprofit sector that are trying (to curb the military-suicide rate) and people are really, intensively — finally — looking at this. But there’s a lot of damage in the pipeline and that’s the part we haven’t dealt with effectively,” Kaufmann added.

Advocates fear the military suicide rate will climb in coming years as more troops are drawn down in Afghanistan. They worry about a spike, in part, because military families — typically the first people to spot mental-health red flags in their returning loved ones — “are just not effectively integrated into suicide-prevention efforts,” she said.

“We’ve asked too much of too few for too long, and this is the conversation the country needs to have. This is not just a military issue,” she added. “Look at how most of us got through the 10 years of war and the multiple deployments. This is a very tough community, unbelievably resilient. But after everybody comes home, and is home for longer than six months to a year, and we’re all together again in a non-emergency situation, that’s when the cracks will show.

“When we’re finally all able to take a breath, people are going to have to start dealing with the challenging things we’ve all kind of pushed down (internally) for the past 10 years. Remember what works well in battle and in combat and the characteristics that make a good soldier or a good Marine are sometimes not successfully translated when you come home,” Kaufmann said. “That’s where it’s going to be tough for people to readjust.”

The figures confirmed Monday are preliminary suicide statistics and do not include 110 “pending” reported suicides among active-duty troop in 2012 that are still under investigation by medical examiners, Smith said.

Typically, those still-unconfirmed cases receive final rulings by late summer and the Department of Defense releases its annual report on the previous year’s suicides sometime in August. The Pentagon, Smith added, is expected to follow that same timetable in 2013.

NBC News' Courtney Kube and Jim Miklaszewski contributed to this report.

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