The military epidemics that aren't

Begin with suicides by servicemen and women, which have increased in recent years—but by dozens of deaths, not in the epidemic fashion that news coverage sometimes seems to suggest. That said, the 349 military suicides in 2012 did exceed the 295 deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. The question is: why?

A major study published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that factors such as substance abuse, depression, financial and relationship problems accounted for the rise in soldier suicides—in other words, the same factors that influence civilians to take their own lives. “The findings from this study,” the authors concluded, “are not consistent with the assumption that specific deployment-related characteristics, such as length of deployment, number of deployments, or combat experiences, are directly associated with increased suicide risk.” …

The science of military post-traumatic stress is also less settled than conventional wisdom has it. There is no doubt about the mental suffering that too many combat veterans endure. But there is confusion about the extent of the anguish or how to treat it. Yet, with hundreds of millions if not billions of health-care dollars per year at stake, the rush toward more treatments, therapies and medications for veterans is accelerating. Something like a “PTSD industry”—and an accompanying and powerful political lobby—has sprung up over the last decade. Our feelings of appreciation for military service, perhaps mixed with more than a little guilt, may be overruling better judgment.