Editorial Column: Another Dereliction of Duty to Our Veterans

The Herald

April 24, 2008 – Patty Murray and other senators are right to call for the chief mental health official of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to resign — because he tried to cover up the rising number of suicides among veterans.

Add yet another sad chapter to the nation’s entrenched “treatment” of its military veterans.

Recovered e-mail messages don’t leave Dr. Ira Katz, the VA’s mental health director, with much room for denial. One e-mail begins with “Shh!” and refers to the 12,000 veterans a year who attempt suicide while under department treatment.

“Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” the e-mail asks.

How depressing, yet unsurprising, that covering one’s backside is the catalyst for contemplating releasing such news. The suffering veterans certainly aren’t the motivation.

Murray, the senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, accuses Katz of deliberately withholding crucial information on the suicide risk among veterans. Such backward, “damage control” thinking is so outrageously wrong, his resignation hardly seems enough.

The e-mails emerged as part of a lawsuit being heard in San Francisco that alleges the VA failed to properly treat thousands of veterans for mental illness. One e-mail said that an average of 18 military veterans kill themselves each day — and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide.

Study after study shows that a high number of service members who return from Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. One in five military personnel report such symptoms, but little more than half seek mental health treatment.

Mental health experts agree: Early intervention and good treatment will save lives and money.

Murray and Sens. Tom Harkin and Russ Feingold on Tuesday introduced legislation calling on the VA to track how many veterans die by suicide each year. Currently, VA facilities record the number of suicides and attempts in VA facilities — which have increased from 492 in 2000 to 790 in 2007 — but do not record how many veterans overall take their own lives. The bill would require the VA to report to Congress the number of veterans who have died by suicide since Jan. 1, 1997, and continue reports annually.

Tracking the number is crucial to learning the full scale of the problem. To actually begin to help our service members, it’s imperative to follow up on earlier legislation promising more and better health care for all veterans, and reducing the number of tours forced on troops currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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