By American-Statesman Investigative Team They survived the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. But they did not survive the homecoming. A six-month American-Statesman investigation, which paints the most complete picture yet of what happened to Texas’ Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military, reveals that an alarmingly high percentage died from prescription drug overdoses, toxic drug combinations, suicide and single-vehicle crashes — a largely unseen pattern of early deaths that federal authorities are failing to adequately track and have been slow to respond to. The Statesman obtained autopsy results, toxicology reports, inquests and accident reports from more than 50 agencies throughout the state to analyze the causes of death for 266 Texas veterans who served in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and were receiving Department of Veterans Affairs disability benefits when they died. The Statesman investigation, which relied on 345 fragmentary death records provided by the VA — as well as obituaries and interviews with veterans’ families — reveals a phenomenon that has mostly been hidden from public view. The investigation found that: More than 1 in 3 died from a drug overdose, a fatal combination of drugs or suicide. Their median age at death was 28. Nearly 1 in 5 died in a motor vehicle crash.
Of those with a primary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, the numbers are even more disturbing: 80 percent died of overdose, suicide or a single-vehicle crash. Only two of the 46 Texas veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations who had a PTSD diagnosis died of disease or illness, according to the newspaper’s analysis. The 345 Texas veterans identified by the VA as having died since coming home is equal to nearly two-thirds of the state’s casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that only includes veterans who have sought VA benefits, meaning the total number of deaths is likely much larger. The investigation highlights the problem of prescription drug overdose among veterans, which has received scant attention compared to suicides: Nearly as many Texas veterans died after taking prescription medicine as committed suicide. VA prescriptions for powerful narcotics have skyrocketed over the past decade even as evidence mounted that such painkillers and PTSD make a dangerous combination. In effect, experts say, the military and VA exposed an especially vulnerable population to a flood of powerful drugs.