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The Truth About Veteran Suicides

By Aaron Glantz

Eighteen American war veterans kill themselves every day. One thousand former soldiers receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs attempt suicide every month. More veterans are committing suicide than are dying in combat overseas.

These are statistics that most Americans don't know, because the Bush administration has refused to tell them. Since the start of the Iraq War, the government has tried to present it as a war without casualties.

In fact, they never would have come to light were it not for a class action lawsuit brought by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth on behalf of the 1.7 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two groups allege the Department of Veterans Affairs has systematically denied mental health care and disability benefits to veterans returning from the conflict zones.

The case, officially known as Veterans for Common Sense vs. Peake, went to trial last month at a Federal Courthouse in San Francisco. The two sides are still filing briefs until May 19 and waiting for a ruling from Judge Samuel Conti, but the case is already having an impact.

"Shh!"

That's because over the course of the two week trial, the VA was compelled to produce a series of documents that show the extent of the crisis effecting wounded soldiers.

"Shh!" begins one e-mail from Dr. Ira Katz, the head of the VA's Mental Health Division, advising a media spokesperson not to tell CBS News that 1,000 veterans receiving care at the VA try to kill themselves every month.

"Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail concludes.

Leading Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee immediately called for Katz's resignation. On May 6, the Chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Bob Filner (D-CA) convened a hearing titled "The Truth About Veteran's Suicides" and called Katz and VA Secretary James Peake to testify.

"That e-mail was in poor tone but the content was part of a dialogue about what we should do about new information," Katz said in response to Filner's questions. "The e-mail represents a healthy dialogue among members of VA staff about when it's appropriate to disclose and make public information early in the process."

Filner was nonplused and accused Katz and Peake of a "cover-up."

"We should all be angry about what has gone on here," Filner said. "This is a matter of life and death for the veterans that we are responsible for and I think there was criminal negligence in the way this was handled. If we do not admit, assume or know then the problem will continue and people will die. If that's not criminal negligence, I don't know what is."

A Pattern

It's also part of a pattern. The high number of veteran suicides weren't the only government statistics the Bush Administration was forced to reveal because of the class action lawsuit.

Another set of documents presented in court showed that in the six months leading up to March 31, a total of 1,467 veterans died waiting to learn if their disability claim would be approved by the government. A third set of documents showed that veterans who appeal a VA decision to deny their disability claim have to wait an average of 1,608 days, or nearly four and a half years, for their answer.

Other casualty statistics are not directly concealed, but are also not revealed on a regular basis. For example, the Pentagon regularly reports on the numbers of American troops "wounded" in Iraq (currently at 31,948) but neglects to mention that it has two other categories "injured" (10,180) and "ill" (28,451). All three of these categories represent soldiers who are so damaged physically they have to be medically evacuated to Germany for treatment, but by splitting the numbers up the sense of casualties down the public consciousness.

Here's another number that we don't often hear discussed in the media: 287,790. That's the number of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who had filed a disability claim with the Veterans Administration as of March 25th. That figure was not announced to the public at a news conference, but obtained by Veterans for Common Sense using the Freedom of Information Act.

Why all the secrecy? Why is it so hard to get accurate casualty figures out of our government? Because the Bush Administration knows if Americans woke up to the real, human costs of this war they would fight harder to oppose it.

Some 'Cakewalk'

Think back to 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, when leading neo-conservative thinker and Donald Rumsfeld aide Ken Adelman predicted the war would be a "cakewalk."

Or consider this statement from Vice President Dick Cheney. Two days before the invasion, Cheney told NBC's Tim Russert the war would "go relatively quickly...(ending in) weeks rather than months."

Today, those comments are gone but the motivation behind them remains. This is why the VA's head of mental health wrote "Shh!" telling a spokesperson not to respond to a reporters' inquiry.

But all the shhing in the world cannot stop the horrible pain that's mounting after five years of war in Iraq and nearly seven years of war in Afghanistan.

Unpleasant Facts

According to an April 2008 study by the Rand Corporation, 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans currently suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or major depression. Another 320,000 suffer from traumatic brain injury, physical brain damage. A majority are not receiving help from the Pentagon and VA system which are more concerned with concealing unpleasant facts than they are with providing care.

In its study, the RAND Corporation wrote that the federal government fails to care for war veterans at its own peril - noting post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury "can have far reaching and damaging consequences."

"Individuals afflicted with these conditions face higher risks for other psychological problems and for attempting suicide. They have higher rates of unhealthy behaviors -- such as smoking, overeating, and unsafe sex -- and higher rates of physical health problems and mortality. Individuals with these conditions also tend to miss more work or report being less productive," the report said. "These conditions can impair relationships, disrupt marriages, aggravate the difficulties of parenting, and cause problems in children that may extend the consequences of combat trauma across generations."

"These consequences can have a high economic toll," RAND said. "However, most attempts to measure the costs of these conditions focus only on medical costs to the government. Yet, direct costs of treatment are only a fraction of the total costs related to mental health and cognitive conditions. Far higher are the long-term individual and societal costs stemming from lost productivity, reduced quality of life, homelessness, domestic violence, the strain on families, and suicide. Delivering effective care and restoring veterans to full mental health have the potential to reduce these longer-term costs significantly."

Bush and Congress have the power to stop this problem before it gets worse. It's not too late to extend needed mental health care to our returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; it's not too late to begin properly screening and treating returning servicemen and women who've experienced a traumatic brain injury; and it is not too late to simplify the disability claims process so that wounded veterans do not die waiting for their check. As the Rand study shows, this isn't only in the best interest of veterans, it's in the best interest of our country in the long run.

To start with, the Bush Administration needs to give us some honest information about the true human costs of the Iraq War.

Aaron Glantz, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the author of two upcoming books on Iraq: The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (UC Press) and Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (Haymarket). He edits the website WarComesHome.org.

© 2008 Foreign Policy In Focus

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