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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Groundbreaking CBS News Investigation Into Veteran Suicide 'Epidemic'

Many thanks to CBS News for their five-months long effort at tracking hard-to-find veteran suicide data down. While individuals (including myself in the form of the PTSD Timeline and Kathie Costos in the form of her multimedia presentations) have attempted to track and record incidents of such suicides over the years, we don't have the resources or manpower to do the need for the information justice. Only mainstream news organizations -- and government institutions -- do.

Thank you, CBS, for your attention to this matter.

The families who agreed to be interviewed for this report deserve our respect and help. They have had a most difficult road, and continue to do the heavy lifting of breaking down barriers to getting their story out. It's up to the rest of us to band around them and help to push for more change in the military culture. We must ensure troops receive proper combat stress management training from boot camp onward, along with a full reintegration support program following combat deployments for veterans and their families.

CBS Evening News First Look:

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Last night's CBS Evening News:

Partial transcript:

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. ...

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 wanted the numbers and did the heavy lifting to get them.

[I]t 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.) ...

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."

An update: 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."

Data specifics:

Forty-five states provided us with raw suicide numbers. Of those, 40 states provided us “cross classified” resident suicide data for the years 2004 and 2005, which we used to statistically calculate rates of suicide for the entire country. (“Cross-classified” is the type of format necessary to run adjusted rates of suicide.)

We asked the acting head of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia, Steve Rathbun, to calculate the rate of suicide for 2004 to 2005. Rathbun adjusted the rates of suicide for age, gender and any potential error in the gathering of the raw data by the states. The results reflect that potential margin of error by showing a range in the rates of suicide among veterans.

Veteran population numbers were obtained by CBS News from the Department of Veterans Affairs and general population numbers came from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Results for 2004

Overall Rates
Veterans: 17.5 to 21.8 per 100,000
Non-Veterans: 9.4 per 100,000

Male Rates
Veterans: 30.6 to 38.3 per 100,000
Non-Veterans: 18.3 per 100,000

Female Rates
Veterans: 10.0 to 12.5 per 100,000
Non-Veterans: 4.8 per 100,000

Results for 2005

Overall Rates
Veterans: 18.7 to 20.8 per 100,000
Non-Veterans: 8.9 per 100,000

Male Rates
Veterans: 31.5 to 35.3 per 100,000
Non-Veterans: 17.6 per 100,000

Female Rates
Veterans: 11.1 to 12.3 per 100,000
Non-Veterans: 4.5 per 100,000

Additional family interviews appear in a companion CBS News HealthWatch piece:

A CBS Eye-to-Eye report with Veterans for Common Sense's Paul Sullivan, part of which was in the main package:

Be sure to return to the main page for more video links and information.

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