With everything swirling around in his mind, I know he was thinking at least they're going to be OK. But we're not OK. —Kami Smith, widow
Army Spc. James Christian Paquette walked into the benefits office at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, with a question: Did his military life insurance policy pay in cases of suicide? He was assured that it did.
Less than two weeks later, he shot and killed himself — and his family collected $400,000.
His widow struggles with the question of whether he would have proceeded with his plan if suicide had not been covered.
"He just wanted to know we would be provided for," Jami Calahan said. "It may have been a weight taken away."
The role of life insurance has not been closely examined in the quest to understand why 352 active-duty service members took their own lives last year — more than double the number a decade earlier.
The suicide rate began rising sharply in 2005. That same year, as casualties mounted in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress raised the standard coverage from $250,000 to $400,000, which most service members carry. If they die on active duty, their families also receive a $100,000 "death gratuity."
The coverage begins upon enlistment. By comparison, private insurance policies in the U.S. typically don't cover suicide for the first two years a policy is in effect.
"In certain cases, it absolutely could factor in," said Thomas Joiner, a Florida State University psychologist studying military suicide. "You're already thinking my death will be worth more than my life to my friends, my family and society."
Paquette's widow, who said she learned about her husband's visit to the benefits office from military investigators, couldn't understand why nobody intervened after her husband raised a red flag by asking about coverage.
In some ways, though, his July 2011 suicide seemed unstoppable, she said. Her husband became deeply disturbed during his deployment to Afghanistan, where he had accidentally gunned down a young boy during a firefight.
Three years after his return, he became suicidal and was hospitalized for a month of psychiatric care. He died three weeks after his release at age 40, leaving behind two sons.
"He felt we were better off without him," said Calahan, who has since remarried.
The military first offered life insurance during World War I, because service members could not buy private policies, which excluded war. The current policy dates to a 1965 law and covers all causes of death except execution for treason.
Given the complexity of suicide and the military, experts have struggled to tease apart the causes of the suicide epidemic. Research has downplayed the role of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half the active-duty suicide victims between 2008 and 2011 had never been to the war zones.
One theory gaining traction is that over the last decade, more people entered the military with pre-existing risk factors for suicide.
No expert suggested that insurance was a major driver. But for service members who are already distressed, knowing that death comes with a financial reward for their families could provide extra motivation, researchers said.
The idea is not new.
In India, thousands of cotton farmers have committed suicide in recent years after becoming indebted to aggressive money lenders. Media reports there have suggested that some states unwittingly contributed to the problem by paying compensation to their families.
And researchers have found that restrictions on coverage can influence suicide rates among people who buy private life insurance.
A 2004 study at the University of Chicago found that the suicide rate quadrupled after the initial two-year exclusion period. In 2010, researchers analyzing insurance data from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea found a suicide spike immediately after the 13-month exclusion period in those countries.
That study also showed that policyholders who died of suicide were insured for greater sums than those who died of natural causes.
Paul Yip, the lead author and director of suicide prevention research at the University of Hong Kong, said the results suggest that having more life insurance can make suicide more tempting.
Extending the exclusion period would save lives, he said, citing the example of Japan, which lengthened its exclusion to three years in response to rising suicide claims during the 1990s. According to a 2011 analysis published by one of its biggest carriers, Nippon Life Insurance, policyholders with longer exclusions committed suicide at slightly lower rates, even after coverage kicked in.
"With an exclusion period, you are buying time," Yip said. "You have more opportunity to come in and change the situation."He said it is something the U.S. military should consider, especially because significant numbers of its suicides occur relatively soon after enlistment.
Though suicides are extremely rare during basic training, when recruits are under tight supervision, the rate quickly accelerates.
Data from the Army, which has the highest rate, show that a quarter of the 1,155 suicides between 2009 and 2012 held the rank of private first class or lower — positions dominated by soldiers with less than two years of service. More than 70 percent of those had never deployed to war.
But other experts noted that studies based on private insurance holders — a self-selecting group that tends to be well-off socioeconomically — may have little meaning for the military, where insurance is essentially standard-issue.
Ronald Maris, a suicide expert at the University of South Carolina, said he doubted life insurance had much, if any, effect on suicide rates in the military.
"Most people who commit suicide are impulsive, and it's often related to acute stress," Maris said. "I don't think they're that calculating."
Jacqueline Garrick, the director of the Defense Department's Suicide Prevention Office, said that most suicide victims were not of sound mind and any restrictions on coverage would be unfair to their families.
"Family members should not be punished or penalized because of a medical condition of their loved one," she said.
Still, some families are left to grapple with the issue.
Sam Smith, a pipe fitter from Rootstown, Ohio, who was a sergeant in the Army National Guard, was found to have post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Iraq in 2005. He used to tell his wife that he was worth more dead than alive to her and their four daughters.
"He said the girls would be set," Kami Smith recalled. "We wouldn't have to worry about anything."
"I would tell him, the girls need a dad, and that's not funny."
As his distress worsened over the years, he continued to quip about the life insurance policy.
By the spring of 2011, he was questioning his marriage and falling behind on house payments. The bank launched foreclosure proceedings.
He killed himself with a handgun that July at age 33.
The $400,000 spared his family enormous financial hardship but nothing more.
"With everything swirling around in his mind, I know he was thinking at least they're going to be OK," his widow said. "But we're not OK."