By Danielle DeSimone
Suicide rates among active-duty military members are currently at an all-time high since record-keeping began after 9/11 and have been increasing over the past five years at an alarmingly steady pace. In 2021, research found that 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the military after 9/11 have died by suicide – compared to the 7,057 service members killed in combat in those same 20 years. For military families and parents, whose active-duty loved one already sacrifices so much to protect our freedom, this trend is extremely troubling.
Several causes can lead a person to commit suicide, but for active-duty service members, there’s an additional layer of potential stressors on top of the regular ups-and-downs of life that puts them at risk.
In light of this heartbreaking trend, several USO centers have developed special programming in line with the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) strategies to prevent suicide to support service members in need, even in the darkest of times.
Strengthening Service Members Through Connection
All around the world, USO centers provide programs that allow service members to connect with their loved ones back home to help alleviate feelings of isolation.
Service members who are stationed in other countries or deployed to combat zones often experience loneliness and isolation. They must spend months – sometimes years – away from family and friends in unfamiliar locations, while dealing with the stress and dangers of their daily duties. It can also be difficult to bond and spend time with fellow service members, depending on the location and resources of their assignment.
This is a serious issue for the morale and mental health of our nation’s military, which not only impacts operational readiness, but also the personal lives of our men and women in uniform.
According to a 2018 study,“social connections can act as a buffer against the impact of stressful or negative life experiences on mental health.” The International Association for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO) also cites social connection as a crucial method in preventing suicide.
This is exactly why connection is at the heart of everything the USO does for active-duty military members and their families.
All around the world, USO centers provide programs that allow service members to connect with both their loved ones back home and with their battle buddies serving with them in-country. To ensure that service members can remain in touch with friends and family, even on deployment, centers are outfitted with free Wi-Fi, computers and free international calling.
“My husband is deployed at the base [in Kuwait],” said a military spouse in 2018. “It is nice to know he can go there … if he just wants some company. It really eases my mind when he is half a world away.“
In USO locations such as Afghanistan and Kuwait, the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program is especially popular. Through this, deployed service members can walk into a USO center, record themselves reading their child’s favorite book and have that recording shipped home. Many military parents credit the program with helping them feel as if they are back with their family, “even if just for one story.”