CBS News – 2007-12-12 23:02:31
Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans
NEW YORK (November 13, 2007) — They are the casualties of wars you don’t often hear about — soldiers who die of self-inflicted wounds. Little is known about the true scope of suicides among those who have served in the military. But a five-month CBS News investigation discovered data that shows a startling rate of suicide, what some call a hidden epidemic, Chief Investigative Reporter Armen Keteyian reports exclusively.
• “I just felt like this silent scream inside of me,” said Jessica Harrell, the sister of a soldier who took his own life.
• “I opened up the door and there he was,” recalled Mike Bowman, the father of an Army reservist.
• “I saw the hose double looped around his neck,” said Kevin Lucey, another military father.
• “He was gone,” said Mia Sagahon, whose soldier boyfriend committed suicide.
Keteyian spoke with the families of five former soldiers who each served in Iraq – only to die battling an enemy they could not conquer. Their loved ones are now speaking out in their names.
They survived the hell that’s Iraq and then they come home only to lose their life.
Twenty-three-year-old Marine Reservist Jeff Lucey hanged himself with a garden hose in the cellar of this parents’ home – where his father, Kevin, found him. “There’s a crisis going on and people are just turning the other way,” Kevin Lucey said.
Kim and Mike Bowman’s son Tim was an Army reservist who patrolled one of the most dangerous places in Baghdad, known as Airport Road. “His eyes when he came back were just dead. The light wasn’t there anymore,” Kim Bowman said. Eight months later, on Thanksgiving Day, Tim shot himself. He was 23.
Diana Henderson’s son, Derek, served three tours of duty in Iraq. He died jumping off a bridge at 27. “Going to that morgue and seeing my baby … my life will never be the same,” she said.
Beyond the individual loss, it turns out little information exists about how widespread suicides are among these who have served in the military. There have been some studies, but no one has ever counted the numbers nationwide.
“Nobody wants to tally it up in the form of a government total,” Bowman said.
Why do the families think that is? “Because they don’t want the true numbers of casualties to really be known,” Lucey said.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee. “If you’re just looking at the overall number of veterans themselves who’ve committed suicide, we have not been able to get the numbers,” Murray said.
CBS News’ investigative unit wanted the numbers, so it submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense asking for the numbers of suicides among all service members for the past 12 years.
Four months later, they sent CBS News a document, showing that between 1995 and 2007, there were almost 2,200 suicides. That’s 188 last year alone. But these numbers included only “active duty” soldiers.
CBS News went to the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Dr. Ira Katz is head of mental health. “There is no epidemic in suicide in the VA, but suicide is a major problem,” he said. Why hasn’t the VA done a national study seeking national data on how many veterans have committed suicide in this country? “That research is ongoing,” he said.
So CBS News did an investigation ± asking all 50 states for their suicide data, based on death records, for veterans and non-veterans, dating back to 1995. Forty-five states sent what turned out to be a mountain of information.
And what it revealed was stunning.
In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.
Dr. Steve Rathbun is the acting head of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at the University of Georgia. CBS News asked him to run a detailed analysis of the raw numbers that we obtained from state authorities for 2004 and 2005.
It found that veterans were more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 than non-vets. (Veterans committed suicide at the rate of between 18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000, compared to other Americans, who did so at the rate of 8.9 per 100,000.)
One age group stood out. Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age. (The suicide rate for non-veterans is 8.3 per 100,000, while the rate for veterans was found to be between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)
“Wow! Those are devastating,” said Paul Sullivan, a former VA analyst who is now an advocate for veterans rights from the group Veterans For Common Sense.
“Those numbers clearly show an epidemic of mental health problems,” he said. “We are determined to decrease veteran suicides,” Dr. Katz said. “One hundred and twenty a week. Is that a problem?” Keteyian asked. “You bet it’s a problem,” he said.
Is it an epidemic?
“Suicide in America is an epidemic, and that includes veterans,” Katz said. Sen. Murray said the numbers CBS News uncovered are significant: “These statistics tell me we’ve really failed people that served our country.”
Do these numbers serve as a wake-up call for this country?
“If these numbers don’t wake up this country, nothing will,” she said. “We each have a responsibility to the men and women who serve us aren’t lost when they come home.”
The chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, responded to the CBS News story Tuesday.
“The report that the rate of suicide among veterans is double that of the general population is deeply troubling and simply unacceptable. I am especially concerned that so many young veterans appear to be taking their own lives. For too many veterans, returning home from battle does not bring an end to conflict. There is no question that action is needed.”
VA Struggles With Vets’ Mental Health
NEW YORK (November 14, 2007) — There were calls in the Senate today for the Department of Veterans Affairs to take immediate action to deal with the hidden epidemic of suicides among veterans.
That’s after our CBS News investigation revealed that, in 2005 alone, 120 of those who have served in the military took their own lives every week – more than double the suicide rate for those who haven’t served.
Now the question is whether the VA is willing or able to deal with it, CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reports.
The failure of the VA to track the alarming number of suicides nationwide among those who have served in the military appears to be part of a broader pattern – and a bigger problem.
Veterans’ rights advocate Paul Sullivan was a data analyst for the VA from 2000 to 2006.
“I don’t think they want to know. We call it the “don’t look, don’t find” policy,” he said. “The VA doesn’t collect data, then they don’t have to do anything about it.”
The mental health numbers the VA does report reveal an agency under siege: 100,000 vets now seeking help for mental health issues. That’s 52,000 for post-traumatic stress disorder alone.
And now, in addition to these reports criticizing the VA’s treatment and spending practices come two more blows: of nearly 90,000 Army vets who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, a study released yesterday found 28.3 percent experienced mental health problems, while the report – due out tomorrow – says while veterans are 11 percent of the general population, they now make up an estimated 25 percent of the homeless.
“When you raise your right hand and put on that uniform, you assume you’re going to be taken care of,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Reickhoff is an Iraq War veteran who says despite all of the good doctors and good intentions, “the VA system is not at all prepared. This country has not ramped up resources to meet this flood of people coming home.”
The VA recently responded to such criticism by opening a suicide prevention hotline, hiring thousands of new workers, including suicide-prevention coordinators at all it’s medical centers. But for those who have lost loved ones to suicide …
“We are deeply sorry to hear about any death,” Katz said. “This is one of the most important things ever for us.”
“I can tell you honestly, Dr. Katz, a lot of the parents I have talked to harbor enormous anger at the VA,” Keteyian said.
“One of the factors that led us to develop prevention programs that go beyond those available in any other health systems, is precisely those tragedies,” Katz said.
“We remake the Army after every war. We bring in new equipment. We bring in new weapons. We need to do the same thing at the VA,” Reickhoff said. “It doesn’t matter where you stand on the war – we’ve got to take care of the warriors.”
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