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Suicide Attempts for Vets Jump 500% in Five Years, and Government Ignores It

Vets are killing themselves in growing numbers, but the government sees suicides as a way to lower the official average processing time of claims.
 
 
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This year, in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week (Sept. 7-13), the Army chose the theme "Shoulder-to-Shoulder: No Soldier Stands Alone," "to emphasize the strength of the Army Family when it works together to tackle tough problems."

It has not been a good week for the Army Family in spite of the special attention.

On Sept. 8, an altercation between a 22-year-old Fort Hood soldier and his commanding officer, a 24-year-old lieutenant, ended when the soldier first shot and killed his officer and then turned his gun on himself. Both were assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, which had returned from a 15-month tour in Iraq in December. The division is currently in training to redeploy back to Iraq this winter for another 12 months -- which in all probability will turn out to be the as good an explanation as any for the tragedy.

Then on Sept. 9, a VA report acknowledged that suicide rates for young male Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans hit a record high in 2006, the last year for which official records are available. Last week, the Portland Tribune reported that in 2005, the last year for which complete Oregon data has been compiled, 19 Oregon soldiers died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. That same year, 153 Oregon veterans of all ages, serving in various wars, committed suicide.

After five years of war in Iraq, Marine suicides doubled between 2006 and 2007, and Army suicides are at the highest level since records were first kept in 1980. Reported suicide attempts jumped 500 percent between 2002 and 2007.

The Defense Department says the numbers may be partly attributable to better compliance with reporting requirements.

Every year since 2004, when the Army sent its first Mental Health Advisory Team to Iraq to study the distressing rash of soldier suicides, and insisted in its final report that "relationship problems" were the root cause, I have tried to find sympathy for Col. Elspeth Ritchie, the Army psychiatrist who always seems to get stuck with the impossible task of announcing that the Army is sticking with that absurdity. For the first time this year, Ritchie has been allowed to add the screamingly obvious qualifier: "Lengthy and multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan cause relationship problems, a leading factor in suicides." Albeit indirectly, the role of war in suicides has officially been acknowledged.

Last May, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., provided the following reaction to VA Secretary James B. Peake's announcement that he was prepared to take on the issue of military suicides:

... Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. Peake announced the creation of two panels with a handful of members appointed to recommend improvements to the Department concerning suicide prevention, suicide research and suicide education.

The VA can set up five commissions -- yet the real problem goes unresolved. We all know that convening meetings to study an issue in order to formulate a report to offer recommendations IS NOT ACTION. I strongly encourage the VA to proactively reach out to all our returning veterans now. Veterans cannot wait -- and should not have to wait -- for a blue ribbon panel to come out yet again with another report.

We KNOW what needs to be done. Each and every service member, Reservist and Guardsman must be given a thorough and mandatory medical evaluation by competent medical personnel when they separate from military service for PTSD and TBI. The VA Secretary was asked to do this weeks ago.

The time for panels has passed. I expect immediate action to address the immediate needs of our veterans.

Yesterday, in a prepared statement (which avoided the risk of being laughed at by any reporters who might have been paying attention), Peake announced his blue ribbon panel's recommendations.

The VA will:

  • Design a study that identifies suicide risks among veterans ... within 30 days.
  • Improve VA's screening for suicide veterans with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder ... with pilot test ... beginning Oct. 1, 2008.
  • Ensure that evidence-based research is used to determine the appropriateness of medications for depression, PTSD and suicidal behavior.

So, the VA will continue to study and prepare and try to weed out the other-than-evidence-based research it has been relying on, while sanctimoniously asking us to keep believing that "every human life is precious, none more than the men and women who serve this nation in the military."

Precious to whom?

When Veterans for Common Sense (unsuccessfully) sued the VA for delays in benefits, lost records, long waits for doctors' appointments, insufficient oversight, and veterans turned away from hospitals in spite of suicidal thoughts, one of the most revealing moments was the testimony of Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations Michael Walcoff. Confronted with the shameful backlog of veterans' claims for health benefits, Walcoff admitted that the VA improved the appearance of timeliness by counting every suicide as a resolved claim. This lowers the official average processing time.

It's also a precious lot of money saved.

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War , was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her Web site is Flashback.

 
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