07/02/2012 12:10 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2013

Mike Mullen On Military Veteran Suicide: 'We've Got 18 Vets A Day Who Are Killing Themselves'

Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival this weekend, giving a candid assessment of the growing problem of military suicide.

(Video above via The Atlantic's Conor Friersdorf)

Discussing the status of the military's health in terms of both individuals, as well as the overall force, Mullen spoke openly of his concerns about personnel increasingly strained by both physical and "invisible" wounds. He also laid out an anecdote to underscore the emotional toll that the last decade of war has taken on members of the military and their families.

"If I'm a 5-year-old boy or girl in a family of one of these deploying units, major deploying units for the Army, whose average deployment let's say was 12 months at a time, and my dad or mom -- but mostly my dad -- has deployed at this pace, I'm now 15 or 16 years old, and my dad has been gone three, four or five times," Mullen said. "And my whole conscious life, from the time I was five and I started to figure out that there was something out there, my whole conscious life has been at war. The United States has never, never experienced that before. So we see issues, incredible stresses on families."

Mullen maintained that the military has made great strides to address the mounting burdens placed on its personnel, but predicted that the problems were only beginning as the nation slowly starts to wind down foreign engagements.

"I believe we're going to see a couple decades of challenges associated with the stresses that we've been just sort of, not just dealing with, but the issues we've been packing away," Mullen explained. "Indicative of that is the incredible suicide rate that we have both on the active side, which is -- even despite all the efforts of leadership to contain it -- is in the Army this year higher now than it was a year ago. And another statistic that hasn't gotten much traction, but we've got 18 vets a day who are killing themselves in the United States. That's not just from these wars, that's all vets."

Mullen commended political leaders for improving how the military is compensated, but spoke of a trend that was increasingly leading service members to drift away from the general populace.

"I do worry that it's just 'Please go off and fight our wars, we don't want to be bothered,' and that the whole country isn't in." he said. "At some point, we cross the line where essentially it's not unlike mercenary forces from other countries."

Mullen's comments come at a time where active duty military suicides have reached the highest pace since combat began in 2001. A recent report placed the rate at around one per day.

Watch more from Mullen's speech on Friersdorf's YouTube channel.

For more on the struggles faced by military service members, read David Wood's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Beyond the Battlefield" series.