Suicide takes more military lives than combat, especially among women

Deana Martorella Orellana stands before the Memorial Honor Wall in Charleroi, Pa., where her grandfather's name is engraved. She killed herself in 2016, joining him on the wall. (Martorella family)

When she was growing up, Memorial Day meant a trip to the Honor Wall in the center of Deana Martorella Orellana's hometown, where the names of Charleroi, Pennsylvania, men who died in the world's battlefields are etched in black granite.

Her family is making that trip without her this year.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

She died with inspirational notes stuffed in her pockets. That March morning in 2016, she had gone to Veterans Affairs and asked for counseling.

She couldn't talk to her family about how her deployment to Afghanistan changed her - and yes, it changed her, they all said - serving on a female engagement team there.

"She talked to one of her sisters about it and said she could take everything except for the children," Laurie Martorella, Deana's mom. "Something about the children really hit her."

And keeping that inside haunted her.

"Nobody talks about mental health," Laurie said. "If you do, you're weak, you're on medication, it might affect my future earnings, there might be a stigma."

Deana shot herself at age 28 with a .45-caliber handgun, joining the growing number of military women who end their own lives.

Memorial Day is about these warriors, too.

Suicide has been the main killer of U.S. personnel since the Sept. 11 attacks. More than 30,000 of them have died by their own hands since, during a period that saw about 7,000 service members die in combat or training exercises, according to a project from Brown University.

Suicide in the military community is at its highest rate since 1938, according to a Department of Defense report released last month.

Increasingly, those killed are women.

In 2020, they accounted for 7% of military suicides - up from 4% a decade earlier, according to Department of Defense numbers. About one in six servicemembers is female.

The reports break down the deaths by gender, age and branch, but they hardly address the dramatic increase among women.

Deana's story was featured in 22 Too Many, a project honoring the estimated 22 military suicides that happen every day.

Last month, three sailors on the Naval carrier USS George Washington stationed in Norfolk killed themselves in less than a week. One of them was electrician Natasha Huffman.

The very nature of the war business does little to discourage this mental health calamity.

"Women who are in these male-dominated settings in the military are trained to be strong, to push through," said Melissa Dichter, associate professor in the School of Social Work at Temple University who published a report this year about women's suicide in the military.

So when women are in mental health crisis, especially PTSD, they go back to the building blocks of basic training, and how they talked themselves out of letting anyone believe they didn't belong there. The answer to everything, they learned, was to work harder. So they pushed through.

When female veterans try to find support in the civilian world, their stories of war and bodies and bombs aren't the stuff of bonding, Dichter found. Support groups, from official meetings at VA to the unofficial ones at the VFW, are testosterone fests.

Dichter analyzed more than a million anonymized calls to the Veteran Crisis Line for her report.

About 53% of the women who called the line were at risk of suicide, compared to 41% of men, her study found.

Many had stories of PTSD and combat trauma. But Dichter found one key difference: While men were more likely to be struggling with substance abuse and addiction, most women called about intimate partner or sexual violence.

That was what ultimately pushed Taniki Richard to try to kill herself: the trauma of combat and a sexual assault that she never reported.

"When I came back from Iraq, I started having nightmares of being raped, and then it being on the aircraft," the Chesapeake, Virginia, retired Marine and mom said in a video on Yahoo.

"One day, it just became too much. I was under so much extreme stress and pain that I just wanted it to end," she said, so she crashed a car into a light pole outside a Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina, "attempting to end my life."

Richard survived. And she went into counseling, understanding that her nightmares weren't only about the night in Iraq when her helicopter was under fire. She realized that among her fellow warriors - the family that the military became for her - was her rapist. She now works with the Wounded Warrior Project and tells her story in speeches and podcasts to help other women who survived assault.

Women in the military are dealing with PTSD, isolation and an experience so common that it has its own military acronym - MST, Military Sexual Trauma.

It's a uniquely sinister form of abuse. It's not like an assault by a stranger or a wicked date. Fellow warriors are supposed to be the ones who have your back in battle. The unit is about supporting each other. Imagine the danger and insecurity any soldier would feel when they are attacked by their own comrades. It's a common theme among the women calling for help.

"In intimate partner sexual violence women often feel stuck, it's hard to find a way out, to see a way out," said Dichter, whose research has included interviewing sexual assault survivors in the military who struggle with the duality of attackers being colleagues.

Her work is showing the military how far-reaching and scarring their epidemic of sexual assault really is.

And how important it is for women leaving the military to find support in the civilian world, whether it's for MTA, PTSD or both.

That was the platform that Deshauna Barber stood on when she swapped her combat boots for stilettos and became Miss USA 2016.

"I want to make sure they have what they need when they return from deployment," she said after her win. "I have lost a soldier to PTSD, to suicide, so I have been directly affected by it."

After taking off the crown, Barber continued that work as CEO of the Service Women's Action Network, a powerful group based in D.C. that lobbies on behalf of military women and connects them to support groups.

Deana's family wants to keep telling her story, so women like their athletic, energetic, compassionate daughter know they are not alone.

They tell her story, say her name, they created a scholarship in her honor.

And this week, they'll go to that black, granite wall in her Pennsylvania hometown. Deana's grandfather's name is there, she once stood in front of it, in her Marine dress uniform.

Now, hers is too.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Related Content

Barry Sussman, Washington Post editor who oversaw Watergate reporting, dies at 87

Ukraine's volunteer 'Kraken' unit takes the fight to the Russians

As Biden eases Trump's sanctions, Cubans hope for an economic lift