Over the past few years it has been said countless times that suicide rate in the military is quite astounding. It has grown and with it so has the attention it is getting and the awareness that it needs. As such, more studies have begun to discover why this high suicide rate exists within our armed forces. These studies are to determine the reason these rates are so high and who is most affected by these. This research paper exists to discover this and ways to evade the further increase of these. I believe that the major factors at play are relationship issues and financial stressors; In addition, I know that depending on the rank and position of someone in the military, the training is very different. I think that depending on that rank or position, one could have an upper hand on these financial stressors that hurt those who protect us. My goal is to explain these opportunities for those who may not know and to show light on the less obvious factors that lead to the high suicide rates in the military.
In an interview with BJ Gallagher, Ann Marsh stated, “Only 13.5 percent of active duty soldiers who killed themselves in 2012 ever saw combat. More than half of them never even deployed. They were struggling with everyday life problems. It certainly is true that many soldiers and veterans who’ve experienced battlefield traumas, and have been injured, are driven to suicide primarily by mental distress and injuries. But the media has focused so much on these tragic cases that they’ve overlooked the lionshare of suicides. And in most cases, nothing so dramatic drove the suicide. It appears that everyday life problems did them in.” (Gallagher, 2017) This means that the vast majority of suicides and suicide attempts in the military were not due to PTSD or combat.
In fact, I believe that the true source of the exceptionally high suicide rates is financial stressors and those stressors whose source is rooted in financial stress. The Department of Defense Suicide Evaluation Report coincides with this statement. The DoDSER (2016) states that, “Overall, the presence of psychosocial stressors in CY 2016 is consistent with the proportionality of stressors in the previous three years. Relationship difficulties, especially strife within—or termination of—an intimate partner relationship, were present in 39.5 percent of suicide cases and 36.3 percent of suicide attempts. Individuals who died by suicide were frequently involved with legal and administrative stressors (25.1%), as were those who attempted to die by suicide (31.8%). Being ‘under investigation’ was a shared risk factor among both suicide cases (10.4%) and suicide-attempt (9.6%) reports.”
In addition, the DoDSER also shows a large portion of the suicides and suicide attempts in the military are due to mood disorders. The DoDSER says, “Of those individuals who died by suicide in CY 2016, 50.7 percent had met criteria for at least one current or past behavioral health diagnosis. Substance use (24.3%) and anxiety (22.1%) disorders were common. However, the most frequently reported diagnoses were mood (26.4%) and adjustment (26.4%) disorders. Conversely, 46.4 percent of Soldiers who died by suicide had no known behavioral health history.” (DoDSER, 2016) This leaves us with two leading factors, mood disorders, that did not exist in the soldiers until not long before the suicide, and relationship issues. In order to get to the bottom of the suicide rates, we need to determine the cause of these mood disorders and relationship issues.
In a survey conducted by Harris Poll, on behalf of Suntrust Bank, “The label of ‘spender’ or ‘saver’ in a relationship may be in the eye of the beholder, according to a recent SunTrust survey conducted online by Harris Poll. People are more than twice as likely to say they are the ‘saver’ and their partner is the ‘spender’ versus the opposite (34 percent compared to 13 percent), and nearly half (47 percent) say they have different spending habits from their spouse or partner. Do these differences cause any friction? Among those who indicate they have relationship stress, finances top the list of reasons: 35 percent say finances are the primary cause, followed by annoying habits (25 percent).” Both of these could be leading causes of relationship stressors; adding up to 50 percent of the leading factors of relationship issues are caused by differences in financial choices or annoying spending habits. In fact, the other leading factor of suicide in the US Military, mood disorders, could be caused by financial stressors as well. In a survey by Harris Poll, on behalf of Suntrust Bank, states “Everyday life is a roller coaster of emotions. You may feel on top of the world one day because of a high-profile promotion or an awesome grade on a test. Another day, you may feel down in the dumps due to relationship problems, financial troubles, or because you got a flat tire on the way to work. These are normal fluctuations in mood that come and go. When your mood starts to have an impact on your daily activities and in your social, educational, and vocational relationships, you may be suffering from a mood disorder.”
These mood disorders could very well be, in conjunction with relationship troubles, are the leading factor in military suicides. This with the knowledge that over half of the mood disorders and relationship issues result from finances is more than enough reason to believe that financial stress has induced many soldiers to take their lives. In fact, the law firm of Wilkinson and Finkbeiner state, “that couples with no assets at the beginning of a three-year period are 70 percent more likely to divorce by the end of that period than couples with $10,000 in assets.” So how can we help to prevent this? First, the military will need to recognize this lack of education to lower the suicide rates and increase participation in the military. Of active duty troops less that ten percent of the nation can serve because of medical, or phycological reasons; of that only one percent choose to serve. Even with that, less choose to stay longer than their minimum time for the contract because of the pay difference between government and civilian employers. If the service members were made aware of the opportunities to succeed financially it would increase longevity of the volunteers.
As a soldier myself, I know that United Services Automobile Association offers many resources to Officers and Enlisted members of the military. As officers the military spends a lot of money and time to train you and in the process teaches you about financial opportunities although, the Enlisted side offers less training without seeking it out. Because financial stress and the lack of education for our service members is affecting high rate of suicide and doing this by introducing more stress through divorce or creating an atmosphere in which they feel the only way out to help their family is suicide. Soldiers must made known of the USAA opportunities that include automobile insurance, house loans and USAA can provide realtors to assist with house buying when moving to a base, and standard banking. USAA also offers many different types of loans. These include housing and for future officers, like those commissioning from Reserve Officers Training Corps or Officer Candidate School, they offer a career starter loan of up to $25,000. They can use this to help purchase furniture for their first house, pay off loans or other expense, or even buy a car. This loan has a low interest rate from 2-5%. In addition, they will give loans for those looking to purchase cars. USAA also offers investment plans and budgeting tips to help soldiers plan for the future. Outside of USAA, a soldier can also obtain the VA Loan, which is up to $300,000 loan for an O-2, Second Lieutenant.
In addition to this the government also gives tax breaks. In the tax article named Important Tax Benefits and Risks for Military Families it explains the possible tax benefits that the government offers so that military families can avoid double or extra taxes because of the lifestyle we must live. Langstrat (2019) states that “The United States Armed Forces are comprised of approximately 1,500,000 active duty members. Although they only make up about 0.5% of the U.S. population, they serve to protect our entire country. Because military life can be burdensome and inconvenient for the families of military personnel, military families are entitled to some unique tax benefits. These benefits have several complex, specific stipulations, so knowledge of the law and proper tax planning are necessary. This article gives guidance on some important tax provisions available to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Military personnel receive special tax treatment in reference to marital status, moving, housing, and deadlines.” In this article several tax breaks and cases that military personnel have made the mistake of misusing tax breaks and suffered the consequences. It is important to understand these in order to better assess which situations to utilize certain tax breaks.
For example, during a deployment a spouse is still considered part of the household if certain stipulations are met. In the previously stated article it states “According to Section 21(e)(4)(A), certain married individuals living apart are considered unmarried, if an individual who is married and who files a separate return: (i) maintains as his/her home a household which constitutes for more than one-half of the taxable year the principal place of abode of a qualifying individual and (ii) furnishes over half of the cost of maintaining such household during the taxable year. If these stipulations are met, during the last 6 months of such taxable year the individual’s spouse is not a member of such household, according to Section 21(e)(4)(B). This is pertinent to military households, as the duration of military deployments is often greater than 6 months. Regulation Section 1.7703-1(b)(5) makes a specific exception for military households. It states, “An individual’s spouse will be considered to be a member of the household during temporary absences from the household due to special circumstances. A nonpermanent failure to occupy such household as his abode by reason of illness, education, business, vacation, or military service shall be considered a mere temporary absence due to special circumstances.” Therefore, even if the taxpayer is deployed and has been absent from the household for over 6 months, the civilian spouse will still be permitted to utilize the married filing jointly income tax status. This allows military families to claim the various tax benefits of the married filing jointly status, despite deployment.” (Langstrat, 2019) This is so that a married couple can still file taxes jointly while dealing with deployment stress.
In addition to deployment stress there is also a large amount of stress associated with moving. As such, to ease the load the government offers tax breaks when moving. Langstrat (2019) also states that “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 repealed the deduction of moving expenses for all taxpayers, except for those who are member of the U.S. Armed Forces. Public Law 115-97 Section 11049 states, “Suspension of deduction for moving expenses: (a) in general.—Section 217 is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection: (k) suspension of deduction for taxable years 2018 through 2025.—Except in the case of an individual to whom subsection (g) applies, this section shall not apply.” Section 217(b)(1) defines moving expenses as: (A) moving household goods and personal effects from the former residence to the new residence and (B) traveling (including lodging) from the former residence to the new place of residence. Section 217(c)(1) states no deduction of moving expenses shall be allowed unless: (A) the new place of work is at least 50 miles from the original place of work and (B) the taxpayer must be employed full-time for at least 39 weeks in the new location. These stipulations are not applicable to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Section 217(g) states “In the case of a member of the Armed Forces of the United States on active duty who moves pursuant to a military order and incident to a permanent change of station: (1) the
limitations under subsection (c) shall not apply; (2) any moving and storage expenses which are furnished in kind…to such member, his spouse, or his dependents, shall not be includible in gross income, and no reporting with respect to such expenses shall be required by the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of Transportation; and (3) if moving and storage expenses are furnished in kind…to such member’s spouse and his dependents with regard to moving to a location other than the one to which such member moves (or from a location other than the one from which such member moves), this section shall apply with respect to the moving expenses of his spouse and dependents—(A) as if his spouse commenced work as an employee at a new principal place of work at such location; and (B) without regard to the limitations under subsection (c).” When active military personnel receive military orders to relocate, their moving expenses are not includible in gross income, despite the distance or the duration of the move. Even when the spouse and dependents of the Armed Forces member move to a location other than the member’s, their moving expenses are deductible.”
For soldiers, it is extremely important to know that these tax breaks exist. Though some are known to officers, not many enlisted soldiers are aware of these. The army does have special trainers on base to help with this. Each military base has financial planners that soldiers can use to get help with budgeting and getting help with loans. In addition, the Army has its own financial planning and education platform. It is especially important for the enlisted soldiers to understand this because the DoDSER states that approximately 44% of active duty soldiers that commit suicide are enlisted. On the other hand, only 14% are officers. This means there could be an additional correlation between the Base Pay of each; for example, the average E-5 makes about $2500 a month, while the average O-2 makes $3500 a month. This huge pay gap means that it for enlisted soldiers, it is a lot harder to utilize some of the higher interest rate loans or investment opportunities that USAA and the VA offer. So to be effective in investing in a soldiers own future one must understand all aspects of military tax breaks and investment opportunity.
This includes the buy and sale of households. In the military it is not unusual to move 3-4 times in the span of 10 years; for civilians this is unheard of. Important Tax Benefits and Risks of Military Families covers this as well. It states, “Military families also receive special tax treatment when they sell their homes. Section 121 details the exclusion of gain from the sale of a principal residence. Section 121(a) states, “Gross income shall not include gain from the sale or exchange of property if, during the 5-year period ending on the date of the sale or exchange, such property has been owned and used by the taxpayer as the taxpayer’s principal residence for periods aggregating 2 years or more.” If the homeowners file their income tax return jointly, they are entitled to exclude a gain of $500,000, rather than the $250,000 allowed for individuals. This is yet another reason why the marital status exception for military families is so favorable. For military families, Section 121(d)(9)(B) allows the 5-year period to be suspended up to 10 years during any period that such individual or such individual’s spouse is serving on qualified official extended duty. This special tax treatment is very impartial, as military life usually entails frequent moving.
Section 121(d)(9)(C)(i) defines qualified official extended duty as “any extended duty while serving at a duty station which is at least 50 miles from such property or while residing under Government orders in Government quarters.” Extended duty is any period of active duty pursuant to a call or order to such duty for at least 90 days or for an indefinite period. Active members of the U.S. Armed Forces receive military housing allowances, and Section 265(a)(6) states that military housing allowances are excludible and may be used to pay interest on mortgages and real property taxes on homes.”
With that being said there are situations when claiming exemptions for moving do not qualify and can get a soldier or retired soldier in this particular case can get you in trouble. In this same tax article there is a case regarding this, it states “Chamberlin13 is a Tax Court case about whether particular moving expenses qualify for deduction. The petitioner, Air Force Officer Alton Chamberlin, moved from an Air Force station in Honolulu, Hawaii to an Air Force base in California; he then moved from the base in California to New Mexico. The Tax Court was tasked with determining whether the moving expenses from Hawaii to California and from California to New Mexico were deductible.
Mr. Chamberlin elected to be processed for retirement at Travis Air Force base in California, after serving 24-25 years in the Air Force. This move was pursuant to a military order in connection with his retirement. Although he only stayed at Travis in California for about one week, he was on active duty. Upon retirement, Mr. Chamberlin moved to New Mexico. He claimed deductions for the moving expenses of both relocations. Section 217(g) overrides Section 217(a), which requires the commencement of work in the new location, in order to deduct moving expenses; Section 217(g) makes an exception for members of the U.S. Armed Forces. The IRS disallowed the deduction of moving expenses, since the taxpayer was retiring from the military.
The Tax Court agreed that the requirement to commence work applies to retiring military personnel, and they are no longer covered by Section 217(g). However, because Mr. Baker was on active duty for the week spent at Travis Air Force Base, he was entitled to deduct the moving expenses from Hawaii to California. During that week of active duty, the taxpayer was covered by Section 217(g), which relieves military personnel of the 39-week full-time requirement detailed in Section 217(c).14 Conversely, the taxpayer was not entitled to deduct the moving expenses from California to New Mexico. Since Mr. Baker fully retired while in California and did not commence work in New Mexico, those moving expenses were nondeductible. Section 217 is very beneficial to members of the U.S. Armed Forces, but it requires the commencement of active duty upon relocation.”
In this situation, it cost him more than the moving expenses because of a mistake in understanding. This is not the only case either, in fact Langstrat (2019) also states several cases. One such case deals with early separation from the military. “Waterman15 is a case about an enlisted member who could not exclude early separation pay from his gross income. The petitioner, Ralph Waterman, was an enlisted member of the U.S. Navy. He served a total of 14 years and 3 months, but only served about 5 months in a combat zone. Upon his return from the combat zone, Mr. Waterman was offered an early separation package from the Navy. He accepted the separation offer and payment, but he was not entitled to any future benefits, such as the pension that becomes available after 20 years of service. The lump-sum special payment amount was measured by Mr. Waterman’s 14 years and 3 months of active service in the Navy; the Navy withheld $9,159 from the $44,946 payment for Federal income tax. He received inaccurate advice that the payment would be excludable from gross income, if it was accepted while serving in a combat zone. Consequently, Mr. Waterman requested a check for $8,951, which was a portion of the withheld $9,159. The IRS determined that the $44,946 should have been included in gross income contended that $2,382 was excludable. $2,382 is the apportioned amount of the $44,946 that correlates to Mr. Waterman’s time spent in a combat zone.
The Tax Court concluded that no portion of the separation payment was excludable from gross income, as Section 112(c)(4) includes pensions and retirement pay in gross income, even for enlisted personnel. Although the separation pay was determined by the taxpayer’s length of service, the pay was not necessarily earned for prior service. The payment was simply in exchange for Mr. Waterman’s concession to leave the Navy early. The Tax Court held that the severance payment was not excludable from the taxpayer’s gross income.” (Langstrat, 2019) This happened because of bad advice given from a professional. Which is why it is important for our soldiers to know what the tax regulations say for themselves because not everyone knows them and could give advice costing the soldier much.