Pentagon Documents Show Suicide Is the Leading Killer of U.S. Troops Deployed to Fight ISIS

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Suicide — not combat — is the leading killer of U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East to fight Islamic State militants, according to newly released Pentagon statistics.

U.S. casualties have been relatively low since the U.S.-led war effort began with a bombing campaign in August 2014, reflecting the limited combat exposure for troops. Of the 31 troops who have died as of Dec. 27 in Operation Inherent Resolve, 11 have taken their own lives. Eight died in combat, seven in accidents and four succumbed to illness or injury. The cause of one death is under investigation.

The reasons suicide ranks as the No. 1 cause of troop deaths are complex and poorly understood, according to experts on military suicide. They likely include mental illnesses that enlistees brought with them to boot camp, post-traumatic stress, multiple combat deployments and heightened anxiety in a military at war for 16 years.

“I don’t think there’s one single cause for it,” said Rajeev Ramchand, a senior behavioral scientist at the Rand Corp. who has studied military suicide. “There are a multitude of factors. They are also picking up on a trend toward more suicide in the U.S. population as a whole. Maybe there’s a universal stress on everyone in the military that affects them in profound ways.”

The nature of the fight against ISIL has also limited combat fatalities. Direct fights between U.S. troops and ISIL fighters are uncommon events. U.S.-led airstrikes have been the principal means of attack, and they have been exceptionally lethal. The military estimates bombs and missiles fired by warplanes and drones have killed 50,000 ISIL fighters.

Thousands of American troops have deployed to train and assist Iraq’s army, and thousands more have been sent to provide security, launch artillery barrages and perform logistics duties. Few of them have come under direct attack.

Several hundred more U.S. commandos are on the ground in Iraq and Syria, conducting raids to capture or kill ISIL leaders and assist local fighters. Some of those missions have been deadly. On Oct. 22, 2015, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a member of the Army’s super-elite Delta Force, was killed by gunfire as he helped free 70 prisoners from an ISIL prison in northern Iraq.

The largest loss of life in a single incident in the war against ISIL didn’t take place in Iraq or Syria. It occurred in Jordan on Nov. 4, 2016, when three Special Forces soldiers were shot by a guard as they tried to enter an air base. The American commandos were training local forces to fight ISIL militants. Their shooting deaths remain under investigation.

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Source: USA Today | Tom Vanden Brook