Suicide was top cause of death for IDF soldiers in 2016
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Suicide was top cause of death for IDF soldiers in 2016

Army releases details on 41 troops who died last year: 15 took their own lives, 4 were killed in operations, 9 in on-base accidents, 7 in car accidents, 6 died of illness

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative. IDF soldiers carry the coffin of a fallen comrade in 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Illustrative. IDF soldiers carry the coffin of a fallen comrade in 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Suicide was the main cause of death among IDF soldiers in 2016, more than terror attacks, training accidents, car crashes or illness, the army reported Sunday.

Fifteen IDF soldiers — all of them male — committed suicide in 2016, the same number as the year before and the year before that, according to a senior official in the IDF’s Manpower Directorate.

In total, 41 soldiers died over the course of the past year, according to year-end statistics released by the military. This is a slight increase from 2015, in which 36 soldiers were killed, but represents a significant improvement from a decade ago.

From 2007 to 2011, the number of soldiers killed each year was approximately 64. Not including 2014, in which the Gaza war took place, from 2012 to 2016, the number of soldiers killed each year dropped to its current level of approximately 40.

According to the IDF, in addition to the 15 soldiers who committed suicide, four soldiers were killed in the course of military operations, nine in on-base accidents, seven in off-duty car accidents and six died from illness or other medical reasons.

Sgt. Ido Ben-Ari's tank, which flipped during an exercise in the Golan Heights, killing him and wounding three other soldiers on November 24, 2016. (Twitter)
Sgt. Ido Ben-Ari’s tank, which flipped during an exercise in the Golan Heights, killing him and wounding three other soldiers on November 24, 2016. (Twitter)

Another 43 soldiers were seriously hurt during the course of 2016, the official said.

Most of the soldiers injured or killed were conscripted troops. A smaller portion were career soldiers, and a handful were reservists who were in service at the time of their deaths, the army said.

Of the soldiers who committed suicide, for instance, 12 were conscripts, two were career soldiers, and one was a reservist.

As in 2016, when all of the soldiers who committed suicide were male, every year, the majority of suicides are by male soldiers — around 90 percent — but having zero female soldiers take their own lives is rare, according to the official.

According to the army, no specific “weak” populations, like new immigrants or members of the Ethiopian community, were over-represented in the 15 soldiers who committed suicide, which is another change from previous years.

The official credited a number of new army programs with bringing down those suicides in these different groups, specifically one known as Moledet, or Homeland, which helps soldiers prepare for the culture of the army.

Maintaining the same suicide rate among soldiers for 2016 was not a given, as there was reason to suspect that suicides in the IDF would increase over the past year.

Tuvia Yanai Weissman with his wife Yael and 4-month-old daughter. Weissman was stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorists at a West Bank supermarket on February 18, 2016. (Facebook)
Tuvia Yanai Weissman with his wife Yael and 4-month-old daughter. Weissman was stabbed to death by Palestinian terrorists at a West Bank supermarket on February 18, 2016. (Facebook)

Following a February terror attack, in which IDF soldier Tuvia Yanai Weissman, who was denied his request to take home his service weapon for an extended leave, was killed, the army loosened its rules regarding the practice.

The prohibition on soldiers’ taking their service weapons home during extended leaves — vacations longer than a weekend — was put in place in 2006, in order to prevent troops from using those weapons to commit suicide, which at the time was occurring at a significantly higher rate than today.

A 2010 military study found that this measure alone was responsible for a 40% decrease in the total number of suicides by IDF soldiers. Another study found that the regulation was responsible for a 57% decrease.

For instance, in 2005, some 36 soldiers committed suicide, and 28 did so the following year. Since then, the numbers have steadily decreased, reaching just seven suicides in 2013.

While the army felt confident that the other programs it had put it place would prevent soldiers from taking their own lives, the decision to cancel the ban on taking weapons home during extended leaves raised the possibility that the suicide rate would rise.

Illustrative. A mental health officer speaks with a soldier. (IDF Technology and Logistics Directorate)
Illustrative. A mental health officer speaks with a soldier. (IDF Technology and Logistics Directorate)

According to the officer, a number of suicide-awareness programs and initiatives, in addition to Moledet, have been put into place since the ban was put into place.

Commanders are also better trained to look for warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts. They also visit the homes of at-risk soldiers, she said.

Mental health officers, known in the army by their Hebrew acronym kaban, are in contact with commanders at every level of the army, the senior official said.

An illustrative photo of an IDF soldier holding a weapon. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of an IDF soldier holding a weapon. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

She also stressed that while soldiers were permitted to take weapons home during their leaves, this was not done without supervision.

“We were strict on who takes home a weapon. It wasn’t whoever wants one,” the officer said.

While suicides remained at the same level as in 2015 and 2014, the number of on-base accidents went up in 2016, the army said.

Most recently, in November, Sgt. Ido Ben-Ari was killed when the tank in which he was riding flipped over. Three other soldiers were also wounded.

Sgt. Ido Ben-Ari (Facebook)
Sgt. Ido Ben-Ari (Facebook)

And in July, two soldiers — Sgt. Shlomo Rindenow and Staff Sgt. Hussam Tafesh — died when the grenade Tafesh had been playing with went off outside their post in the Golan Heights.

The official had no specific explanation for the uptick in the number of accidents in 2016, but said it was a “minor increase in an overall decreasing trend.”

Figures provided by the army back up that claim for training accidents, which happened at least once or twice a year from 2005 to 2010, but mostly dropped off in the years since then. (The statistics only went back to 2005.)

IAF pilot Maj. Ohad Cohen Nov, 34, died October 5, 2016, while ejecting from his F-16 fighter jet during an attempted landing at the Ramon Air Force Base in southern Israel. (Courtesy)
IAF pilot Maj. Ohad Cohen Nov, 34, died October 5, 2016, while ejecting from his F-16 fighter jet during an attempted landing at the Ramon Air Force Base in southern Israel. (Courtesy)

The number of accidents involving aircraft similarly dropped off in recent years, with the notable exception of Maj. Ohad Cohen Nov, who was killed in October when his F-16 crashed.

One of the army’s most dramatic improvements, however, has been in the number of soldiers killed in off-duty car accidents. Between 2005 and 2011, the number hovered around 15, with a peak of 24 and a low of 11. For the past three years, the number has stayed between seven and eight, according to army figures.

This was accomplished by requiring soldiers to get adequate sleep before leaving for base and rolling out an anti-drinking-and-driving campaign, the IDF officer said.

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