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Sabrina  Eaton
By Sabrina Eaton April 8, 2011

Rep. Tim Ryan off target in claim about service personnel contemplating suicide

A March 16 House Armed Services Committee hearing on the war in Afghanistan put the spotlight on a  widely documented increase in military suicides.

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During questioning of General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Michele Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, Rep. Tim Ryan cited figures for military personnel who have contemplated taking their own lives

"From '05 to '09, we've had 1,100 soldiers commit suicide, one every 36 hours. A report in Navy Times said that 7.3 percent of Army, Navy and Marines have thought about attempting suicide," Ryan said at the hearing.

PolitiFact Ohio checked the first part of his quote in a separate item and rated it True. This item will just check his assertion that 7.3 percent of personnel in the Army, Navy and Marines have contemplated suicide.

We started by trying to verify the existence of the Navy Times report that Ryan mentioned, which was supposed to indicate that 7.3 percent of Army, Navy and Marines have contemplated suicide. When we couldn’t find it among Navy Times articles archived in the Lexis-Nexis database, we contacted editors at Navy Times. They confirmed that the publication never reported such a statistic.

The closest thing we found was a December 2009 article on attempted suicides in the military during 2008. It cites a Defense Department survey that found the Navy had a 2.8 percent attempted suicide rate that year, the Army had a 2 percent rate, the Marine Corps had a 2.3 percent rate and the Air Force had a rate of 1.6 percent.

It’s important to note, though, that these numbers represent service members who actually tried to kill themselves, not those who thought about suicide, as Ryan said.

But Ryan’s statistic, it turns out, evolved from this December 2009 article via a circuitous series of bloopers.

First, instead of consulting the original article or the military report from which it drew its information, Ryan got his information from a student-researched blog entry on a website operated by "Project Censored." That blog item said: "According to the Navy Times, 7.3 percent of Army, Navy and Marine soldiers reported in a survey that they had attempted suicide at one point."

The "Project Censored" author used an article from "The World Socialist Web Site" as his main source, and committed a math gaffe in attempting to summarize the article.

Instead of finding a combined average for suicide attempts in those three service branches, the student added the percentages together to produce an erroneously high 7.3 percent figure. The total is slightly off from the sum of the Navy Times numbers because the Socialist website incorrectly listed the Navy’s suicide attempt rate as 3 percent instead of 2.8 percent.

Finally, Ryan added in his own mistake to the mix by claiming the figure applied to suicidal thoughts instead of suicide attempts.

"Congressman Ryan unfortunately misstated the statistics," Ryan spokesman Erick Sanchez acknowledged in an email.  Sanchez sent us the original government report that contains the statistics reported by Navy Times. It also contains data on suicidal thoughts by members of the U.S. military.

That report said that in 2008, almost 5 percent of Defense Department personnel said they’d seriously considered suicide. The Air Force (3.1 percent) and Coast Guard (2.8 percent) had lower rates of suicidal thoughts than the other service branches, which were all around the 5 percent mark.

Although the rate of suicidal thoughts had not increased since 2005, the report found that "all DoD services reported at least a doubling in rates of attempting suicide from 2005 to 2008." It cited an overall military rate of 2.2 percent for attempted suicides.

So where does that leave us on the Truth-O-Meter?

Through a series of goofs and misrepresentations, data about actual attempted suicides among military personnel became a number cited as the percentage of those who had contemplated suicide. The numbers Ryan cited didn’t come directly from the military. Instead, he relied on material from a blog article that used faulty mathematics to come up with an erroneous percentage.

The series of errors took data from a military report on a ridiculous course to create an inaccurate statement. On the Truth-O-Meter, that kind of a claim rates as Pants on Fire.

Our Sources

The New York Times, "Pentagon Report Places Blame for Suicides" by Elisabeth Bumiller, July 29, 2010

McClatchy Newspapers, "Task Force: Military Suicide Prevention Efforts Inadequate" by Barbara Barrett, August 24, 2010

U.S. Army, "Health Promotion, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention Report 2010," July 2010

U.S. Department of Defense, "The Challenge and the Promise: Strengthening the Force, Preventing Suicide and Saving Lives; Final Report of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces," August 2010

Navy Times, "Navy Attempted Suicide Rate Nearly Three Percent" by Kelly Kennedy, Dec. 23, 2009

Project Censored’s Media Freedom International,  "Suicides Taking More Lives than War," March 12, 2011

World Socialist Web Site, "Suicide Claims More Military Lives than Afghan War" by James Cogan, January 6, 2010.

U.S. Department of Defense, "2008 Department of Defense Survey of Health Related Behaviors Among Active Duty Military Personnel," Robert M Bray, et. al, September 2009.

Emails from Tim Ryan spokesman Erick Sanchez, April 4-6 2011

Email from Navy Times news editor Jenn Rafael, April 5, 2011

Emails from Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez, April 5, 2011

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More by Sabrina Eaton

Rep. Tim Ryan off target in claim about service personnel contemplating suicide

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