Truth About Veteran Suicides
by Aaron Glantz
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
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.
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 affecting
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.
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.
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.
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."
nonplused and accused Katz and Peake of a "cover-up."
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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
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.
courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.
Glantz [send him mail]
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