Decrease in guard suicide numbers part of political campaign

A screen capture from a YouTube video shows S.C. National Guard Adj. Gen. Bob Livingston's campaign ad.

South Carolina Adjutant General Robert Livingston is running a TV ad for his re-election in which he promotes a 70 percent decline in National Guard member suicides.

But political media watchers say the figure should be viewed with both caution as well as sensitivity, given the state guard's suicide numbers are statistically small when compared to the thousands of S.C. troops who have served in recent times.

Data supplied by the S.C. National Guard says there have been 15 officially recorded suicides among guard members since 2008, when the wave of military suicides became a national trend.

Of the group, eight of the individuals never deployed, a spokesperson said, while six members had been. The status of one soldier was undetermined.

The guard figures come as more than 18,000 S.C. Army and Air National Guard members have been deployed in support of U.S. military efforts in Iraqi, Afghanistan and other areas around the globe since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

College of Charleston political scientist Kendra Stewart said presenting a percentage reduction is a common tactic when a political campaign wants to emphasize a trend. But she said there is always more to look for when facts have to be condensed for a 30-second commercial.

"I don't want to marginalize the significance of declining suicide rates, but you get a more accurate picture when you look at the raw numbers," she said. "This is typical in politics. You use whatever best number helps to tell your case."

Livingston, a Republican, has served as adjutant general since 2010. He faces minimal opposition from James Breazeale, an airline pilot and lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, in the June 10 GOP primary. No Democrats have filed.

Suicide among the military has become an alarming concern nationwide and at the Pentagon as the stress of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan has plagued some returning soldiers. As recently as last year the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that every day as many as 22 veterans in the U.S. kill themselves, according to published reports. The number includes veterans who are in the older age demographics, and who may not have seen action in either of the recent conflicts.

Matt Nichols, a spokesman for Livingston's reelection bid, said the suicide reduction message was included in the TV commercial to highlight a successful streamlining of available services Livingston helped direct after taking office to address quality of life for guard members and their families.

"The general takes the loss of a single soldier extraordinarily seriously," Nichols said. "He thinks that 'one' is unacceptable."

Among the efforts Livingston implemented was a Resilience, Risk Reduction and Suicide Prevention Program in July 2011, the Guard said. Emphasis was also put on crisis and prevention management, job and employment transition, sexual assault education, and substance abuse outlets.

"Making sure their brothers-in-arms are in a good mental state," Nichols said of the overall message.

The trend among Guard suicides has dropped off in recent years. The S.C. Guard reported one suicide in 2011; one in 2012; three in 2013; but none for the first part of fiscal 2014.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551