The Marine Corps appeared to be struggling with suicide more than any other service branch over the past year, according to an annual Pentagon report on suicide data released last week.
It had the highest rate of active-duty suicides among all of the military services in 2022. The report, which measured the rates per 100,000 service members to account for the varying sizes of the different military branches, also reported that the Marine Corps had its highest suicide rate since 2011.
Overall, suicides decreased in the military last year, though active-duty deaths increased slightly. For the Corps, it saw its worst rate in years -- 61 total deaths, or 34.9 deaths per 100,000 Marines. And despite dips in 2021 and 2019, instances of suicide in the Marine Corps have generally been increasing over the last decade, as with the other services.
Last week, the commandant of the Marine Corps pointed to a nationwide lack of available mental health professionals who are needed to address the problem, adding that everything from "professional help within our units to command climate" was on the table for improvement.
The Army, Navy and Air Force suicide rates were all below 30 per 100,000 service members. In the Marine Corps, demographic statistics tracked with those across the other services and some tracked with national trends. For the Corps, nearly 97% of those who died by suicide were men. More than half were between the ages of 20 and 24. Ninety percent were enlisted, and 82% were white.
For families who have lost Marines to suicide, however, those increasing numbers -- the suicide rates -- were a damning reminder that the problem that took their loved ones away is not getting better.
"Those toxic f---s," Tanya Mort, a Gold Star mother of a Marine who died by suicide in 2021, said to Military.com when she first learned that the service's suicide rates had increased from the year prior.
"It's a pain that never goes away," she said. "There's regret, there's guilt, there's just unspeakable emotions every day ... and you just sit and you just wonder how you could have saved him."
Mort lost her son, Sgt. Anthony Muhlstadt, to suicide after he purchased a gun at the Marine Corps Exchange at Twentynine Palms, California. In the Marine Corps, Muhlstadt witnessed an environment that stigmatized seeking help, his mother said.
"What we can do is ensure that Marines know that it is OK to ask for help, it does not injure your career," Gen. Eric Smith, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said during the Military Reporters and Editors conference in Washington, D.C., last week when asked about the increased rate.
Smith referred to what he called "barracks lawyer" talk that seeking help for mental health issues will get a service member kicked out of the military.
"No, we're not," he said. "If the thing that is causing you to go over the edge in your stress level is the Marine Corps, then I'll help separate you -- that's OK. Because when you're 50, you can thank me. But if you just need help, just ask."
But Mort said that battling that stigma is not so simple. Muhlstadt, her son, watched his friends, some of whom Mort still keeps in contact with, unsuccessfully navigate the Marine Corps mental health system. He saw one of his friends seek help and was told, "He just wants out of work, he doesn't want to deploy, he was playing the mental health card," Mort recalled.
Muhlstadt ended up getting private counseling because he was afraid of telling his command. He was prescribed an antidepressant, but Mort was unsure how effective it was at tackling what her son was experiencing, part of which stemmed from what she described as a toxic unit environment.
"He was [a] machine gunner that loved his job," Mort said. "[But] he didn't want to be stripped of anything. ... So, he shut his mouth."
The disconnect between the commandant's comments and Mort's experience reckoning with what her son saw -- a stigma-laden military mental health system -- represents the hard problem of suicide in the ranks. Neither could pin down a specific reason for it, outside of a compounding number of issues, many of which are out of the service member's control.
The mental health professionals mentioned by Smith are just not always available, he said, and it has fallen to service members to fill the need.
"They're not there to obtain into the military," Smith said of the mental health professionals. "So, we have to use our corpsmen, our commanders and our chaplains."
Chaplains are not generally licensed clinical counselors, according to MilitaryOneSource, though they can provide community, unit and religious services to service members in need of confidential help. Some experts in the military have been pushing to implement and improve what is known as embedded behavioral health, a system in which licensed mental health professionals are assigned to the unit level.
In 2021, the Marine Corps released a suicide prevention plan, part of which said "the focus is not the determination of whether or not an ideation took place but rather on allowing the commander and/or leader the opportunity to track the occurrence and engage with the service member concerning issues of stress and other factors that lead to suicide."
In September, Smith and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz released a video addressing suicide in the service.
"We must create a culture where people can make mistakes, and yet they can get back up and not allow them, allow ourselves to beat ourselves down because of that mistake -- that there is hope that they can get back up and try it again," Ruiz said.
In the wake of her son's death, Mort has dedicated herself to learning about the problem and helping others while she awaits the Naval Criminal Investigative Service report investigating his death which was nearly two years ago. She has taken Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, or ASIST, courses, for example, and hopes that the Marine Corps will dedicate similar training for young leaders in a way that isn't just checking a box.
"I know that my life now is absolutely, completely different," Mort said. "And my mission is to honor Anthony and to make sure that there's no other mother that has to go through this."
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on X @df_lawrence.