May 9, 2008, Washington, DC – Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake took heated questions this week on Capitol Hill about whether his agency was withholding information about the number of veterans who are committing suicide.
His testimony was prompted by the disclosure of e-mails during a recent trial that seemed to suggest some VA officials were hiding the number of veterans trying to kill themselves. Peake promised to make the agency more transparent.
Here are some questions and answers on veteran suicides, what information exists, and what changes in care have been made.
Q: How many U.S. troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have committed suicide?
A: It’s difficult to know for sure. There is no central place where the government keeps track of the number of troops who fought in these wars and subsequently took their own lives.
The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks the number of suicides among those who have left the military. It says there have been 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the wars.
The Pentagon says there have been 172 suicides by troops in the war zones. That’s not the entire picture, however, because that count does not include those who returned home and committed suicide while still in the military. The Associated Press has repeatedly asked the Department of Defense and the Army for this information, but they have not provided it.
Q: What else do we know about these suicides?
A: Peake said the VA’s research has found the rate of suicide among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq was slightly higher — but not significantly different statistically — than the comparable general population. The VA’s research is limited to suicides through the end of 2005.
In upcoming weeks, the Army is expected to release a report with information on Army suicides that occurred last year. As of January, the Army said at least 89 soldiers had taken their own lives in 2007, and the deaths of 32 others were being investigated as possible suicides.
In 2006, the Army’s suicide rate rose to 17.3 per 100,000 troops — the highest in 26 years of record-keeping.
Q: What is being done to address the problem?
A: The Department of Defense does mental and physical screenings of all troops when they return to the United States after fighting in a war zone, and a second time from 90 to 180 days later. Army leaders say they’re also working to change the stigma against seeking help.
The VA last year created a national suicide hot line for veterans. It also has appointed suicide prevention coordinators at all VA medical centers.
Some veterans advocates say that’s not enough. Two veterans groups, Veterans for Common Sense in Washington and Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Veterans United for Truth filed a lawsuit seeking a judge’s ruling to force the VA to make changes in mental health care. During the trial in the case, the e-mails surfaced. The judge has not yet ruled.
Q: Are veterans at higher risk for suicide than the general population?
A: There is what is called the “healthy soldier effect.” When troops enter the military, they are considered at lower risk for suicide than the general population because they passed mental and physical health screenings. Researchers at Portland State University in Oregon found last year that male veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide as male non-veterans. High gun ownership rates, debilitating injuries and mental health disorders were all factors that seemed to put veterans at greater risk.
Q: Is there a reason to be concerned?
A: Many mental health professionals say yes. A recent Rand Corp. study estimated that about 300,000 of the 1.6 million troops who have fought in the recent wars are suffering from mental health problems. Based in part on that report, Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told reporters Monday that it’s possible that suicides and psychiatric mortality “could trump combat deaths.” About 4,500 troops have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Q: A VA official said in an e-mail to colleagues that surfaced recently during a trial that 1,000 veterans a month attempt suicide while under VA care. Is this correct?
A: Peake told the House Veterans Affairs committee this week that the number was not accurate. He said it could be an underestimate. He said the VA is trying to improve its tracking of suicide attempts by veterans under its care. The number he cited was a count of all veterans, not just those from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Q: How many veterans commit suicide every year?
A: The true incidence of suicide among veterans is not known, according to a Congressional Research Service report released this month. Based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VA estimates that 18 veterans a day — or 6,500 a year — take their own lives. That number includes veterans from all wars.
Q: There are more than 58,000 names listed on the Vietnam Wall. Is it true that more Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than are named on the wall?
A: No one knows for sure. Some say that’s an urban myth, while others believe it’s true. One government study of Army veterans from Vietnam found they were more likely to have taken their own lives than other veterans in the first five years after leaving the military, although the study found the likelihood dissipated over time. While there have been improvements in tracking suicides, advocates say more tracking and research must be done to better quantify and understand suicide among veterans and society as a whole.
Q: Is there a direct link between combat and suicide?
A: Suicide is complex and difficult to understand. There is research that indicates traumatic events like combat generally increases a person’s suicide risk, but there is considerable debate about why, according to the VA’s National Center for Postraumatic Stress Disorder. Combat experience is just one of many possible risk factors for suicide.