WASHINGTON – Members of Congress who questioned Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake and his top aides about suicides among veterans accused them of hiding information about the issue.
The officials’ response was simple, but hardly comforting: The VA wasn’t covering up the truth, they said, because it didn’t know the truth.
Last week’s hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee was aimed at finding out whether service members who return from Iraq and Afghanistan are killing themselves in large numbers.
But where one might expect precise, up-to-date statistics there instead are incomplete figures with a decided time lag.
Here is some of what is known, according to the most recent government figures:
•An estimated 18 veterans kill themselves each day, or almost 6,600 a year; that number includes all veterans.
•Almost three-quarters of them had not been receiving care from VA facilities.
•Only 144 veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan committed suicide over a four-year period, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
One major problem with the data is that it stops in 2005 – thus vastly understating the number of suicides of Iraq or Afghanistan veterans. And the risk factors for post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to depression and suicide, have increased, largely because of multiple deployments.
A rise in suicides among Iraq or Afghanistan veterans is shown by figures obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from internal government e-mails, with the 144 suicides consisting of 7 in 2002, 21 in 2003, 48 in 2004 and 68 in 2005.
“I’m suspicious that we’re not getting all the statistics,” said Matthew Cary, president of Veterans & Military Families for Progress. “I don’t understand why we don’t have the most recent data.”
Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Alison Aikele said rates have been fairly steady among all veterans, and that there is no indication of an epidemic, “which is not to downplay the problem.”
Aikele said the department relies for figures on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the only agency tracking death nationwide. The 2005 numbers are the latest available. With 25 million veterans nationwide, compiling data is time-consuming, she added.
By comparison, the Department of Labor recently put out its annual figures for injuries, illnesses, deaths, federal investigations and penalties for fiscal year 2007. That includes 146 million workers.
David Segal, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, said suicide figures are difficult to compile. “What if someone drives their car into an abutment? Is that a suicide? If they don’t leave a suicide note, it’s hard to tell. Most people who study suicide assume that whatever the figure is, it’s an underestimation, for any group of people,” Segal said.
In 2005, Aikele said, the VA took the names of everyone enrolled in its care and sent them to the CDC, asking who was on the overall list of those who had died, and how had they died. It turned out that 1,784 veterans had died of suicide, which worked out to four or five a day.
The figure of 18 suicides a day is derived from the fact that about 32,000 people commit suicide a year, and studies have shown that one-fifth of all suicides are by veterans, Aikele said.
Administration officials say privately that they hope for a “legislative remedy” compelling all states to participate in the National Violent Death Reporting System, thereby making more comprehensive figures available on veterans’ suicides. Currently, only 16 states participate.
Ramona Joyce, spokeswoman for the American Legion, said that after several years of underestimating problems of post-traumatic stress-disorder and traumatic brain injuries, the military has set up programs to help veterans.
Peake has “taken the bull by the horns,” and is undertaking a “massive outreach” to 570,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, with the American Legion putting out information about mental-health programs.
But, she noted, “We can’t measure those results yet, because we don’t have the numbers yet from 2006 and 2007.”