Sep 16, VCS in the News: VA Covers Up Shocking Statistics on Iraq War Soldiers’ Suicides

Niagra Falls Reporter (New York)

September 16, 2008, Olean, New York – Here are some alarming numbers you may not remember seeing. 
That’s because the current federal government certainly won’t promulgate them unless pushed, and much of the national news media seem more concerned about who’s climbing into bed with whom than with stories that might offend, sadden, or anger viewers and readers. I’m guessing this one will do all three.

Soldiers and U.S. military veterans who commit suicide each day: 18

Soldiers and veterans who commit suicide each year: More than 6,500

Suicide attempts per year among soldiers and veterans: 12,000

And those are just the figures for 2005. They seem to be going up.

The frightening figures come first from CBS News and its televised report last fall by investigative reporter Armen Keteyian, and indirectly from federal court action in California, and from the Department of Veterans Affairs itself, which was caught trying to cover up the shocking statistics.

When CBS News broke the story last November, it drew little reaction from the national press and was not — in my view — adequately “picked up” and further disseminated with attributed-reference stories.

Who knows why? This disregard for hard news among celebrity-entranced outlets is apparent on a daily basis these days.

One outfit that was interested, however, was Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), one of the most activist veterans groups going — run by executive director Paul Sullivan, a man I know personally to be a true patriot, courageous truth-teller and pit-bull advocate for America’s fighting men and women, past or present.

Sullivan once worked for the VA as a project manager for mental health benefits, but grew so frustrated at being stymied by the indifference and jungle of red tape he met in trying to get veterans the help they deserved and needed, he quit a few years back and accepted the top executive post at VCS, a group founded by combat veterans of Bush the Elder’s Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Sullivan lost little time in filing a class-action suit against the VA on behalf of thousands of veterans wounded in Iraq, claiming they have been misled, rebuffed, ignored and needlessly delayed by the VA when they sought disability or medical benefits. (The VA claims it averages six months to complete a claim but a recent Government Accountability Office report shows claims involving mental trauma often take more than a year to process. And the 32,000 veterans who appealed their initial rulings in 2007 face an astounding average wait of 3.5 years for that appeal to be processed.)

As Sullivan told the magazine The Nation in an excellent cover article titled “How the VA Abandons Our Vets” by Joshua Kors in its Sept.15, 2008 issue, “The VA needs more than a few minor changes at the margins. It needs a massive overhaul.”

The huge Cabinet agency — budgeted at $94 billion a year — quickly moved for dismissal, claiming the VCS has no standing and doesn’t actually represent veterans. A San Francisco federal court judge, Samuel Conti, a World War II veteran himself, begged to differ.

In January of this year, he ordered the VA to send top officials to the stand, and to produce relevant records, studies and statistics. These included certain e-mails authored by Dr. Ira Katz, the VA’s top mental health official. Katz had been interviewed in the CBS report, and denied the suicide numbers were that bad.

“There is no epidemic of suicide in the VA,” he said on camera.

Katz also told the House Veterans Affairs Committee last November that the CBS numbers were flat wrong.

“Their number is not, in fact, an accurate reflection of the rate,” he instructed skeptical members of Congress. The VA, in fact, held that only 790 suicide attempts by veterans occurred in 2007, a small fraction of the number claimed by CBS.

When the court action forced the VA to cough up the internal records five months ago, Katz’s e-mails told a totally opposite story. The VCS lawyers knew they had found something incriminating as soon as they read the title of one Katz e-mail to the VA’s media relations chief: “Not for the CBS News Interview Request.”

It began “Shh!” and included the line, “Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our facilities.”

In another internal e-mail to Dr. Michael Kussman, head of the entire VA health department, Katz indicated — just days after his congressional testimony to the opposite — that CBS had hit it right on the button: “There are about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans. (This) is supported by the CBS numbers.”

The reaction was strong. When CBS showed the e-mail to House VA Committee chairman Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat, his hair almost caught on fire.

“This is disgraceful,” Filner said. “This is a crime against our nation, our nation’s veterans.”

He claimed the VA officials “do not want to come to grips with reality, with the truth.”

And it isn’t just veterans no longer in combat who are in clinical depression. The Pentagon keeps only active duty records of suicide deaths. In 2006, at least 99 members of the Armed Forces — a third of them serving in Iraq or Afghanistan at the time — killed themselves, and 948 others tried to.

Last year, 2007, the active-duty suicide figure was 121 — a 20 percent increase — with 34 of those on duty tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. The attempts rose to an estimated 2,100.

A week ago, the VA — using figures supplied by the Secretary of the Army — released statistics showing 62 soldiers have committed suicide already in Iraq and Afghanistan, with 31 cases of possible suicide still under investigation.

If that trend continues, the military number will surpass the civilian total — now 19.5 suicides per 100,000 — for the first time since the Vietnam War. The trend line shows victims are increasingly younger.

There are various theories, some more believable than others, including increased frequency and duration of deployment, ready access to weapons and daily violence that permeates the consciousness.

One psychiatry consultant to the Army surgeon general, Col. Elspeth Ritchie, said last year that soldiers may act compulsively when they “get a ‘Dear John’ or ‘Dear Jane’ e-mail and then takes his weapon and shoots himself.”

Dr. John M. Grohol, a psychiatrist writing earlier this year about the 2007 figures in the online publication World of Psychology (, complained that the armed services talk a good game when it comes to mental health care and emergency counseling and therapy, and other available treatment, but the military follow-through is counter-productive.

“Making use of it (military mental health care) acts as a black mark on a soldier’s official record,” writes Grohol. “Such a mark will often severely limit the person’s career advancement within the armed services, and may deny them access to the usual lines of promotion and advancement. So what do … soldiers and officers do? They simply don’t seek out mental health care, and deal with their feelings on their own.”

Treating severe depression or hopelessness on one’s own, he warns, “can lead to very bad things. Like suicide.”

Military suicide data falls between the federal cracks. The Pentagon keeps only active duty suicide numbers. You can see above what the VA does. And the Centers for Disease Control — through its National Violent Death Reporting System started five years ago — does not monitor veteran status and still has only spotty regional data, mostly non-military.

CBS got most of its numbers state-by-state, where vital statistics tend to be much more precise.

Even worse, in President Dubya’s godforsaken administration, Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans now have to prove their wounds came from “service-connected” action, usually actual combat, before they get benefits. And I mean prove as with actual evidence in a court of law, even if they are one of the myriad with limbs missing.

They need witness statements, after-battle combat assessments, proof their medals were earned, folders with medical evaluations from the war field, officer assessments, statements from buddies in the same unit, sworn statements from commanders, precise dates and times of wounding, circumstances surrounding the injury — there are people on Death Row put there with less evidence.

The Nation article followed a discharged sergeant who ironically was protecting some of Dubya’s show-boating officials touring Baghdad streets, where they shouldn’t have been, when he was injured by a roadside bomb — and then six months later, another.

He was injured badly enough to receive two Purple Hearts and a lifetime load of shrapnel in his face and right arm. His brain was damaged. His right ear rings. He has nightmares, sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. He has acid-reflux disease and constant heartburn. He has seizures and convulsions. His marriage dissolved.

The sergeant has X-rays showing the actual shrapnel in his body. He has all the field data, signed by officers. When he went to the VA upon returning home — according to the thorough reporting of Joshua Kors in The Nation — they gave him Prozac for his depression, Bupropion for his sleep, and Prazosin for nightmares.

Then they refused his disability claim, suggesting his problems — even with the evidence of shrapnel — may have come instead from a car accident more than two decades ago in which he bumped his head on the steering wheel.

Oh, and when the VA discovered he drinks Red Bull, they further diagnosed his problems as resulting from too much caffeine. The sergeant has appealed. See ya in 3.5 years, sergeant. Good luck.

Oh, and the sergeant is prohibited by VA policy dating back to the Civil War from hiring a lawyer to present his case — a fundamental right you and I enjoy. This, the VA contends, levels the playing field for vets who can’t afford a lawyer.

What a beauty that lame excuse is. I read it three nights ago and I’m still laughing, then crying.

Oh, and the VA now will make the sergeant and others like him fill out a 26-page disability application loaded with essay demands, charts and enough legal jargon to make it resemble a law school application. That ought to make the process smoother and more efficient, right?

Oh, and while the incredible VA claims backlog grew 50 percent just since 2006, the VA handed out $3.8 million in cash bonuses to top political leaders of the Cabinet agency. Public service, as Paul Sullivan has noted, “is an honor, not an ATM machine.”

This is only a tiny fraction of this vast VA problem and Dubya’s execrable attack on the 1.6 million true patriots he sent into harm’s way.

Last year, Sullivan also testified in front of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He delivered lengthy, biting testimony in which he described “the many unconscionable, outrageous, and intentional actions taken by the Department of Veterans Affairs and by the Administration to prevent our Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans from receiving prompt medical care and disability compensation.”

I’ll try to give you more of what he revealed in future columns.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at

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