The Veteran Suicides

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On this Veterans Day, tributes continue for the 13 soldiers who died last week at Ford Hood, gunned down by one of their own. It was a shocking and terrible event, which warranted the outpouring of sorrow it inspired. Yet every single day, on average, more current and past members of the U.S. armed services die by their own hands than were killed on November 5 at Fort Hood.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ own calculations (which it tried to conceal from a CBS News probe, Congress, and the public), there are “about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans.” That’s well over 6,000 a year. In addition, the VA admits that “suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities.” Rates are highest among young men in their twenties, veterans of our current wars. And these numbers do not include suicides by active duty members of the military. In 2008 alone, these numbered nearly 250 (Army 128, Navy 41, Marines 41, Air Force 38)–an average of five every week.

There are no public outpourings of grief for these servicemen and women, whose deaths must often have followed prolonged suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression, or plain old despair. There are no memorial services with eulogies by the president, no tributes at Veterans’ Day parades, no week-long stretches of nonstop media coverage.

Instead, there are sporadic news reports, and the occassional Congressional hearing. And while increasing lip service has been paid to improving mental health care for veterans, in reality, the VA has set up multiple obstacles to such care. 

As The Nation reported last year, the VA has delayed or denied disability and medical benefits to thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans because they couldn’t “prove” that their conditions were “service-related.” In addition, ”a recent Inspector General report found that 70 percent of VA facilities don’t have a system to track suicidal veterans. Only a handful of VA hospitals have rehab programs that include families. And soldiers injured today face a benefits waiting list more than 650,000 veterans long.” One doctor in the VA’s leadership who publicly criticized these shortcomings was summarily fired.

Even the true statistics on veteran suicides would never have come out were it not for a class action lawsuit by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and Veterans United for Truth, who sued the VA in federal court. According to the veterans’ groups:

Many veterans who have fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, as well as those who served in earlier conflicts, are not being given the disability compensation, medical services and care they need. A much higher percentage of these veterans suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) than veterans of any previous war, due to the multiple tours many are serving, the unrelenting vigilance required by the circumstances, the greater prevalence of brain injuries caused by the types of weaponry in use, among other reasons. Despite this, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (“DVA”) is failing to provide adequate and timely benefits and medical care.

The judge who heard the case in federal district court in San Francisco–himself an 86-year-old veteran of World War II–said he was sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ cause, but he found against them. According to VCS, “In his decision, Judge Conti held that although it is clear to the Court that the VA may need ‘a complete overhaul’ the the power to remedy this crisis lies with the other branches of government.”

In other words, if the VA can’t or won’t fix itself, it’s time for Congress and the White House to step up and do something about this travesty. (Elizabeth Gettleman’s piece today mentions one such effort—which is, unsurprisingly, being blocked by House Republicans.)

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