Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Soaring Vets' Suicide Rates

The VA now says 22 vets kill themselves every day.

Shortly after the Pentagon announced that more soldiers took their own lives last year than were killed in combat, the Veterans Administration also announced that suicide rates for military veterans are hitting record levels.

Last week, the VA announced its estimate that 22 vets a day are killing themselves, up from 18 vets a day just a couple of years before.

The good news – and the bad news – is in that word “estimate.”

The VA began focusing on suicide prevention in 2007, but only at its own hospitals and clinics. Then in 2010, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki reached out to the governors of all 50 states to request suicide data from their health departments on vets who might have been outside the VA healthcare system.

Using that data brought the suicide estimates up from 18 a day in 2007 to 22 per day in 2010. So the rise in suicides is understandable, to a point; the VA has expanded its data base.

But the bad news remains because it’s still an estimate. That figure comes with only 21 states reporting.  And it doesn’t yet include data from states like California and Texas, states which have large numbers of vets living around huge military installations.

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So you can expect higher … but more realistic …suicide statistics from the VA as it continues to receive data from the remaining state health departments.

But one aspect of this incomplete data is already proving out what I’ve suspected for years: that Vietnam vets are a big part of the picture. The VA said that vets who killed themselves tended to be older than non-vets. More than 69 percent of the deceased vets were 50 years or older, while only 37 percent of the non-vets were that old. Of the 60 year olds, only 8.1 percent were civilians, but 16.5 percent were vets and 19.6 percent participated in the VA system. Of the 70 year olds, only 4.6 percent were civilians, but 18.6 percent were vets and 20 percent participated in the VA system.

According to the Census Bureau in 2010, there were 7.6 million Vietnam-era (1964-1975) veterans, or about 35 percent of all living veterans. In addition, 4.5 million served during the Gulf War (representing service from Aug. 2, 1990, to present); 2.3 million in World War II (1941-1945); 2.7 million in the Korean War (1950-1953); and 5.6 million in peacetime only.

And that would make sense that the ‘Nam vets are providing this surge because these were the kids who came home before psychiatrists had invented the term post-traumatic stress disorder and before there was counseling available. They learned to live with their pain, their disabilities, their nightmares and their flashbacks. Thank God we’re making some progress, even though there’s a long way to go.

I’ll keep you posted as the VA guesstimates become more and more based on reality.

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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