WASHINGTON — Suicides in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 last year, far exceeding American combat deaths in Afghanistan, and some private experts are predicting the dark trend will grow worse this year.

The Pentagon has struggled to deal with the suicides, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called an epidemic. The problem reflects severe strains on military personnel burdened with more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, complicated by anxiety over the prospect of being forced out of a shrinking force.

Pentagon figures obtained Monday by The Associated Press show that the 349 suicides among active-duty troops last year were up from 301 the year before and exceeded the Pentagon’s own internal projection of 325. Last year’s total was the highest since the Pentagon began closely tracking suicides in 2001. It exceeds the 295 Americans who died in Afghanistan last year, by the AP’s count.

Military suicides began rising in 2006 and soared to a then-record 310 in 2009 before leveling off for two years. It came as a surprise to many that the numbers resumed an upward climb this year, given that U.S. military involvement in Iraq is over and the White House is taking steps to wind down the war in Afghanistan.

The Army, the largest of the military services, had the highest number of suicides among active-duty troops last year at 182, but the Marine Corps, whose suicide numbers had declined for two years, had the largest percentage increase – a 50 percent jump to 48. The Marines’ worst year was 2009’s 52 suicides.

The Air Force recorded 59 suicides, up 16 percent from the previous year, and the Navy had 60, up 15 percent.

The Pentagon says that although the military suicide rate has been rising, it remains below that of the civilian population. It says the civilian suicide rate for males aged 17-60 was 25 per 100,000 in 2010. That compares with the military’s rate in 2012 of 17.5 per 100,000.