Washington, DC (written by Gregg Zoroya/USA Today) -- The most common way that U.S. servicemembers die outside of combat is by their own hand, according to an analysis released by the Pentagon on Wednesday.
Since 2010, suicide has outpaced traffic accidents, heart disease, cancer, homicide and all other forms of death in the military besides combat, the report says. One in four non-combat deaths last year were servicemembers killing themselves.
This year, suicides among troops occur on average once a day, according to Pentagon figures obtained by USA TODAY. The data, first reported by the Associated Press, show that after the end of the Iraq War, suicides may become more common than combat deaths.
There were 154 confirmed or suspected suicides this year through June 3, while 127 troops died in the Afghanistan War, Pentagon data show.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Wednesday that he has directed all military branches "to immediately look at that situation and determine what's behind it, what's causing it and what can we do to make sure it doesn't happen."
On a related issue, Panetta revealed Wednesday that he will have all service branches follow the Army's lead in reviewing mental health cases dating to 2001. The goal is to see whether any current or former servicemember was denied appropriate medical retirement benefits.
Last year, 26% of military deaths occurred in combat, 20% by suicide and 17% in traffic accidents. The percentage of suicides is up from 10% in 2005.
All the services except the Navy are seeing increases in suicide among active-duty members this year. All have studied the issue. The Army - which has the highest suicide rate, on par with the civilian rate - is spending about $75 million to understand why it is happening and what to do about it.
No one so far has answers, said Army Col. Carl Castro, who leads researchers trying to find effective forms of prevention and treatment.
"We were slow to react (at first) because we weren't sure if it was an anomaly or it was a real trend," Castro said. "Then it just takes time to program the money and get the studies up and going."
All the services introduced suicide prevention programs based on promising ideas, Castro said, but none is rooted in scientific research.
"Everything we do in suicide prevention, there's no evidence it works," Castro said.
Castro said the research efforts, among the first of their kind in the nation on suicide, could begin producing findings in the months ahead.
Panetta said suicide is "one of the most complex and urgent problems" he faces. "Commanders cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services," Panetta wrote.