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Monday, September 15, 2008

OEF/OIF Veteran Suicide Toll: Nearly 15% of Overall U.S. Military Casualties Result from Suicide

See Afghanistan, Iraq Veteran Army Suicide Rate Continues to Climb; PTSD Timeline Update for updated OEF/OIF veteran suicide data -- Ilona Meagher, 11/4/09

Back in February, the Marines released their military branch's updated suicide statistics. They revealed the number of Afghanistan and Iraq combat troops and veterans who took their own lives in 2007 had doubled over the previous year.

Earlier this month, the Army reported its own current soldier suicide data, reflecting another year of record increases. And just last week, the VA chimed in with their latest OEF/OIF veterans suicide figures -- also another record-breaker -- for its Afghanistan and Iraq veteran clients.


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

Gregg Zoroya of USA Today:

In 2006, the last year for which records are available, figures show there were about 46 suicides per 100,000 male veterans ages 18-29 who use VA services. That compares with about 20 suicides per 100,000 men of that age who are not veterans, VA records show.

The statistics accompany the release of a study conducted by a group of mental health experts appointed by VA Secretary James Peake to investigate the department's efforts to track and prevent suicides among veterans. ...

VA records show that 141 veterans who left the military after Sept. 11, 2001, committed suicide between 2002 and 2005. In the one year that followed, an additional 113 of the Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans killed themselves.

The report did not specify how many of those 113 saw combat. The increase in the number of suicides can be attributed in part to the rising number of veterans since 2001. The overall suicide statistics include veterans who served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but were stationed outside the combat zones. ...

The release of the VA data comes days after the Army said 2008 may be another record year for suicides among active-duty soldiers. If the trend continues, it would surpass a record of 115 suicides set in 2007. The Army reported last week that through August, there have been 62 confirmed suicides and 31 deaths suspected of being suicides.

"If this holds true, suicide rates for the Army will surpass" the U.S. rate for the general population, an Army news release says.

What follows below the fold is a partial, quite incomplete look at where we're at today as far as Iraq and Afghanistan troop/veteran suicides are concerned. It's exasperating work; but, I'm in good company. Congress for years has struggled to get a straightforward and full data set out of the DoD and the VA, too.

First, a few caveats: There are all sorts of problems that exist with the data in the table below.

DoD and VA statistics -- and a description of just what incidents are and are not counted, and why one incident is included and another not -- never seem to appear in a concise format.

Some reports, for example, don't break things down easily for us. Is the Army active-duty tally for all OEF/OIF troops or formerly-deployed forces/veterans, or does it include non-OEF/OIF forces (for example, serving in Korea), too?

I've weeded through and broken it all down to reflect only Afghanistan and Iraq figures to the best of my knowledge and ability. I welcome any additions of data and/or corrections that you may find and care to share.

OEF/OIF Suicides

Active-duty military forces
Marines, active-duty forces, deployed, 2003: 2
Army, active-duty forces, deployed, 2003: 25
Marines, active-duty forces, deployed, 2004: 7
Army, active-duty forces, deployed, 2004: 11
Marines, active-duty forces, deployed, 2005: 4
Marines, active-duty forces, deployed, 2006: 4
Army, active-duty forces, deployed, 2005-2006: 120
Marines, active-duty forces, deployed, 2007: 6
Army, active-duty forces, deployed, 2007: 115
Army, active-duty forces, deployed, January-August 2008: 62
Army, active-duty forces, deployed, through August 2008 (suspected): 31
Army, active-duty forces, between deployments, 2002-2008: ???
Army, active-duty forces, suicide attempts, 2002: 350
Army, active-duty forces, suicide attempts, 2007: 2,100 [5 per day]

Veterans
Marines, active-duty, prior deployed, 2003: 6
Marines, active-duty, prior deployed, 2004: 10
Marines, active-duty, prior deployed, 2005: 8
Marines, active-duty, prior deployed, 2006: 5
Marines, active-duty, prior deployed, 2007: 12
Veterans, separated from service, under VA care, 2002-2005: 141
Veterans, separated from service, under VA care, 2006: 113
Veterans, separated from service, not under VA care, 2002-2008: ??? [*at least 139]


OEF/OIF Suicide Totals
Active-duty military forces: 356 [+another 31 suspected]
Veterans: 295 [+another 139 not officially counted by DoD or VA]
-------------------------------------------------------------------
356+295=651 OEF/OIF active-duty troop or veteran suicides.

If we were to add in the 139 the DoD and the VA appear not to be counting (see note below), the figure rises to 790. And, if we add in the 31 suspected 2008 suicides still being investigated by the DoD, the number grows to 821.

As of today, there have been over 4, 700 U.S. OEF/OIF casualties.

If we use the conservative suicide figure above of 651, doing the math, that translates to nearly 15% (13.82 to be exact) of our Afghanistan and Iraq war losses are as a result of suicide.

If we plug in the higher figure (821), the percentage jumps to over 17% (17.43).
*Important note on the above figures:

In October, AP reported on preliminary VA research at the time, which revealed that 283 OEF/OIF veterans had committed suicide between 2001-2005.

This was the figure that I was prepared to use when testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee in December on this issue at the Stopping Suicide: Mental Health Challenges Within the Department of Veterans Affairs hearing.

I noted in my testimony [read | view] that the combined reported DoD and VA figures reflected the fact that 10 percent (at the time) of our overall service member casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are as a result of suicide.

The night before the hearing, I reviewed the VA's prepared remarks slated to be delivered the following day. That's when I first noticed the change. The VA figure had been decreased by 139 (from the original 283), to a total of 144 OEF/OIF suicides. Of course, I became curious: What happened to the 139 no longer being counted?

I was able to get my question answered pretty quickly.

Following my testimony, VA Mental Health Director Dr. Ira Katz (who was quite gracious and kind to me, although he's come understandably under fire quite a bit since then for his less-than-full disclosure of the VA's suicide data) introduced himself, giving me the chance to ask him privately about the changed suicide tally.

Why had the figure been reduced?

He went into a long explanation, saying that the VA incorrectly counted some veterans in their system, who in reality were still considered a part of the DoD when they died. Therefore, they weren't official VA clients and need not be included in their count.

After going back-and-forth a bit to get some more clarification, my best understanding of this logic is that 139 OEF/OIF veterans aren't being recognized in our official OEF/OIF veterans suicide data due to a mere technicality.

For example, Iraq veterans like Timothy Bowman, who'd returned to the states but had not yet enrolled in the VA for care when he committed suicide, for some strange reason doesn't need to be considered part of the overall data.

Since he wasn't a VA client, he isn't counted in the VA statistics. And since he wasn't deployed when he committed suicide, the DoD doesn't appear to include him, either, when it reports on how many of its combat zone troops have perished this way.

Is this really the best way for us to go about trying to get a real handle on the depth and breath of the OEF/OIF suicide issue?

I don't think so. Anyone else feel the same way?

Some related stats:

  • Nearly 40% of Army suicides in 2006 and 2007 were taking psychotropic drugs like Zoloft and Prozac for depression and PTSD.

  • Nearly 60% of 948 Army suicide attempts in 2006 had been seen by mental health providers before the attempt - 36 percent within just 30 days of the event.

  • More than 43,000 U.S. troops since 2003 were sent into combat even though they had been listed as medically unfit in the weeks before their scheduled deployment.

  • The "typical" soldier who commits suicide is a member of an infantry unit who uses a firearm to carry out the act, according to the Army.

  • 53% of veteran suicides from 2001-2005 came from the Guard or Reserve population; for a period during 2005, they accounted for about 50% of forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, when averaging all war years, they made up 28% of all U.S. military forces deployed.

  • 100,000 OEF/OIF vets have sought help for mental health issues, including 52,000 for post-traumatic stress disorder alone.

  • According to the DoD, there were almost 2,200 active-duty soldier suicides between 1995-2007.

  • CBS News reported in November that there were at least 6,256 veteran (of all wars) suicides in 2005 [this figure includes data collected from 45 states; the figure is, therefore, higher if taking all 50 states into account]. That’s 120 each and every week. In addition, on any given night, nearly 200,000 veterans are counted among the homeless.

  • In 2005, OEF/OIF veterans aged 20 through 24 had the highest suicide rate among all vets, about 2-4 times higher than their civilians peers. (Civilian suicide rate: 8.3 per 100,000; Veterans suicide rate: between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)

  • A 2007 survey of U.S. troops revealed that about 12% of OIF and 17% of OEF combat troops are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope.

  • The new VA suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), recently reported that it's received more than 55,000 calls, averaging 120 per day, with about 22,000 callers saying they were veterans.


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