AMERICAN troops have braved war zones now for more than a decade, knowing they may be killed by the enemy.

In 2012, a record number of active-duty service members — 349 — took their own lives.

Society cannot prevent every suicide. But military bases and the communities that surround them must make sense of what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has described as an “epidemic” that is expected to worsen as U.S. forces withdraw from overseas conflicts.

The Associated Press obtained military documents showing the suicide rate last year surpassed the number of troops killed in combat. A comparison by The Washington Post determined that 229 Americans died in Afghanistan within the same period.

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Joint Base Lewis-McChord experienced a record 13 suicides in 2011. The Washington National Guard reported no suicides in 2010; five in 2012.

Suicide is up in every branch of the armed forces. Theories range from post-traumatic stress disorder in those returning from deployments to transition issues related to money, alcohol and relationships.

Military officials have responded by expanding suicide hotlines and hiring more behavioral-health experts.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a prominent advocate for the nation’s volunteer military, said last week more must be done to ensure service members are not “slipping through the cracks.”

Spc. Mikayla Bragg from Longview killed herself Dec. 21, 2011, while stationed alone in a guard tower in Afghanistan. A military investigation revealed the 20-year-old’s history of mental-health issues was never disclosed to her superiors in the field.

The report suggests soldiers should not be stationed solo and a clear line of communication should be established between mental-health providers and commanders in the field.

Friends and families of military members must be vigilant.

Look for signs of despair and depression. Speak up.

Self-destruction should never be a struggling service member’s only way out.