WASHINGTON — The U.S. military lost more service members to suicide than combat last year as the number of troops who took their lives rose to a record high.
The 349 active-duty suicides in 2012 underscored the toll a decade of wars has taken on the all-volunteer force and the extent to which the Pentagon continues to grapple with an issue senior leaders have called an epidemic. Comparatively, 229 troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan last year, according to a Washington Post tally.
The Pentagon has been tracking active-duty suicides since 2001. The military began expressing acute concern when deaths began rising in 2006, and it has rolled out numerous initiatives to encourage service members battling depression or post-traumatic stress to seek help.
The number of suicides had peaked at 310 in 2009 but hit a new record last year, according to end-of-year figures military officials provided Monday. Military officials said the numbers might be slightly revised when 2012 deaths are fully investigated later this year.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed frustration last summer as the military started seeing roughly one suicide per day. The rate of service members taking their lives remains slightly lower than that of the general population, but officials say it is nonetheless unacceptably high.
In an effort to curb the trend, the military has hired more behavioral health care providers, embarked on a long-term study of mental health for uniformed personnel and expanded the reach of a crisis line.
“We are deeply concerned about suicide in the military, which is one of the most urgent problems facing the department,” Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said. “We are committed to taking care of our people, and that includes doing everything possible to prevent suicides in the military.”
The Marine Corps, which had notable success lowering its suicide rate over the past two years, saw its 2012 number rise by 50 percent to 48 suicides, the steepest percentage increase among the services. The force’s number of attempted suicides last year, 179, also marked a record high.
Corps officials say they are partnering with research organizations to understand the root causes behind the trend.
The Navy and Air Force, which have traditionally had a lower incidence of suicide than the Marines and Army, each recorded more suicides this year than last. The Navy had 60, a 15 percent increase, and the Air Force tallied 59, a 16 percent increase.
The Army, the military’s largest force, had 182 suicides in 2012 compared with 159 in 2011, according to the Associated Press, which first reported the new statistics. A defense official confirmed that number, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the Army has not yet released its December suicide statistics.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.