Dr. Ira Katz, chief of mental health services for the Department of Veterans Affairs, sent an e-mail to a VA colleague this past February that read:
"Shh! 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 somebody stumbles on it?"
Unfortunately for the government, somebody did "stumble" on it. Dr. Katz lied about the numbers before the House of Representatives Veterans' Affairs Committee, grossly understating the number of such suicide attempts. He testified that the number for all of 2007 was 790. He also neglected the Army's own "Suicide Event Report," which disclosed that 2006 saw the highest rate of military suicides in 26 years!
CBS News did its own extensive research, finding that more than 6,250 American veterans took their own lives in 2005 alone. That comes to slightly more than 17 suicides every day.
Most of the data was obtained by discovery in the case of Veterans for Common Sense v. Peake, now pending in U.S. District Court in California. Veterans for Common Sense has spent years seeking this information under the Freedom of Information Act as well as through discovery ancillary to its lawsuit.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of Veterans for Common Sense, and I have an application pending with the VA for an increase of my disability pension as a Purple Heart combat veteran of World War II.
The litigation against Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake is uncovering more than the familiar amalgam of government secrecy, cover-up and deception by still another federal agency.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is vital to the protection and support of our troops. This support has carried an implied exception, namely cost-cutting for veterans' health care after they have served their country.
The Veterans for Common Sense lawsuit has already demonstrated that the VA intentionally misled Congress and the public about the epidemic of veterans' suicides. Here are the facts squeezed out of the government to date:
- 120 veterans commit suicide every week.
- 1,000 veterans attempt suicide while in VA care every month.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ Nearly one in five service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (approximately 300,000) have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms or major depression.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ 19 percent of post-Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with possible traumatic brain injury, according to a Rand Corp. Study in April.
Ã¢â‚¬Â¢ A higher percentage of these veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than from any previous war because of "stop loss" or an involuntary extension of service in the military (58,300), multiple tours, greater prevalence of brain injuries, etc.
The Veterans for Common Sense case has already uncovered widespread breakdown of the VA's health care for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Rand Corp. study demonstrates that, in addition to the 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with PTSD, an additional 320,000 have sustained physical brain damage resulting from traumatic brain injury. A majority of these injured GIs are receiving no help from the Defense Department or the VA, which are more concerned with covering up such unpleasant facts than providing care and paying disability pensions.
The Rand Corp. study concludes:
"Individuals afflicted with these conditions face higher risk 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. ... These conditions can impair relationships, disrupt marriages, aggravate the difficulties of parenting, and cause problems in children that may extend consequences of combat trauma across generations."
The Defense Department's Task Force on Mental Health has begun to recognize "daunting and growing" psychological problems among our troops. Nearly 40 percent of our soldiers, a third of our Marines, and half of the National Guard members are presenting with serious mental health issues.
The administration and Congress must come to grips with this grave and growing problem among our returning vets. The suicide rates, domestic violence and the strain on families need to be recognized, and timely health care provided. Proper screening and treatment are essential. Our returning troops are entitled to nothing less.
These are the real costs of President Bush's misbegotten and mismanaged wars. These are the costs that the administration seeks to hide while it attempts to make the test of patriotism the wearing of flag pins in our lapels!
It's what is underneath those flag pins that really matters. It is called compassion. It is real patriotism as opposed to the fraud of "Mission Accomplished" and promises of victory.
Emanuel Margolis is an attorney in Stamford, a former chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and an adjunct professor of First Amendment law at Quinnipiac Law School.
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant