By STACY BARE
on June 2, 2015
While the suicide rate among veterans from operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom is still too high, it’s not 22 a day.
There is a statistic that has been widely quoted in the veteran community that highlights an estimated 22 veterans a day are committing suicide. It is a deeply troubling statistic and has galvanized the veteran movement, both from inside the military and veteran communities, and externally, to bring about a wide range of programming nationwide. The statistic, however, is widely misunderstood.
This figure — 22 veterans a day commit suicide — while widely touted by politicians, media outlets, veterans service organizations, among others, comes from the VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report, which analyzed the death certificates of 21 states from 1999 to 2011, and often is not provided within the right context. The report itself, as cited by the Washington Post earlier this year, warned, “It is recommended that the estimated number of veterans be interpreted with caution due to the use of data from a sample of states and existing evidence of uncertainty in veteran identifiers on U.S. death certificates.” As an example, the average age of veteran suicides within the data set was nearly 60 years old, not representative of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans generation.
A more recent study, which surveyed 1.3 million veterans who were discharged between 2001 and 2007, found that “Between 2001 and 2009, there were 1650 deployed veterans and 7703 non-deployed veteran deaths. Of those, 351 were suicides among deployed veterans and 1517 were suicides among non-deployed veterans. That means over nine years, there was not quite one veteran suicide a day,” according to the Washington Post.
While veterans have a suicide rate 50% higher than those who did not serve in the military, the rate of suicide was, as the LA Times reported, “…slightly higher among veterans who never deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq, suggesting that the causes extend beyond the trauma of war.”
Coming home from war, a six-month deployment on a ship, or simply transitioning from a life in uniform to a life without one, can be difficult and the various state and federal systems set up to deal with this transition and life after military services are unable to meet the need. That is not to say these programs — the Veterans Affairs entitlement and benefit programs like medical care, the G.I. Bill, the VA Home Loan, etc. — are not helpful; they are. But, for my generation of veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, our suicide rate is closer to one a day and most likely to occur in the first three years of return. While this this is still very troubling, it is not 22.
Still, there are further steps needed in bridging the gap created by those who serve and those who don’t. Supporting integration back into families and communities requires robust public-private partnerships. The veterans, as well as the communities they live in, are both responsible for filling or bridging that gap, though not necessarily equally.
The challenges of adjustment and transition, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, and physical disabilities, all need to be addressed especially as these things result in barriers to education, employment, health care, and overall individual well-being. Many of these needs are being met by a combination of different veteran-serving nonprofits and VA support. Unfortunately, there are still gaps in the system.
We in the veteran advocacy community need to tailor our programming, especially if we are in the business of preventing suicides, to respond to what we’ve learned from the data. One suicide is one suicide too many. Effective programming to help service members, veterans, and families transition to a positive life after service in their first three years home from service is a must.
Another requirement is fostering supportive community relationships for veterans, and really for all people, when life gets difficult as they surge past the age of 50. It also means that if we are serious about tackling the problem, we need to be creating, or rather shifting, programming specifically to address the needs of older veterans while maintaining preventative care for recently returned veterans.
As soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, we all prided ourselves in uniform on not making the emotional decision, but the right decision. As veterans, we should have the same commitment and that means we need to act within the framework of facts — in advocacy and programming. Inadvertently, we’re preying on a well-intentioned public by citing a misleading statistic to receive financial support and that’s not right.
As veterans, we’re far more resilient than we’ve given ourselves credit for. If we do our job now, and extend a helping hand to our brothers and sisters over 50, we can decrease that suicide rate, and ensure our generation avoids despair in the future.
Stacy Bare is focused on providing programming and advocacy for veterans and others to engage in the power of time spent outdoors. He is currently working on a project, Make Adventure Not War, that will allow him to ski or climb in the various countries he deployed to during his time in service. Follow Stacy Bare on Twitter @MSSNOTDRS
PERSONAL COMMENTARY, IN RESPONSE TO THE ARTICLE ABOVE:
I don’t understand the logic, or reasoning, behind downplaying the number of Veteran suicides in this Country. The Author states, correctly, at the outset that the numbers are skewed and inaccurate based on their source(s). He then falls mistakenly into the premise that the number “22” is perhaps grossly inflated. He also seems to be comfortable with Veterans and the private sector shouldering the responsibility for fixing the “number”.
As someone with intimate experience and knowledge on this situation, I can state, unequivocally, that the fashionable number “22” is misleading, at best, but in a different direction. The “number” is too low.
Several factors come into play when talking about, reporting, and documenting Veteran suicides. For starters, the Veterans Health Administration declines to list suicide as a “cause of death” in many actual suicides. I have brought this to the attention of various levels of Professionals inside the VHA, and I am told the same thing, time after time; “We can’t automatically conclude that this Veteran’s death was an actual suicide. The “cause of death” may well have resulted from some other medical problem that was exacerbated by the use of drugs and/or alcohol; there, technically not a suicide.” With that sort of ambiguity being the standard operating procedure, the VHA can suppress the real numbers of suicides, so they don’t appear to be totally inept in dealing with the problem. The number “22” is therefore dangerously low.
“We in the veteran advocacy community need to tailor our programming, especially if we are in the business of preventing suicides, to respond to what we’ve learned from the data. One suicide is one suicide too many. Effective programming to help service members, veterans, and families transition to a positive life after service in their first three years home from service is a must.”
These three sentences are crucial to turning this suicide situation around. The first sentence should start with “The Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs need to....” It is not the duty of Veterans and Veteran Service Organizations to turn this around. Please get rid of, and cease using, this second sentence. It is a cliché, an insult to our intelligence, and an unreasonable expectation. The third sentence should probably be the title of any article addressing Veteran suicide and should directed to the aforementioned Government Agencies.
Unfortunately, it is articles like this that rely on regurgitating numbers formulated by entities that are steeped in “voodoo” accounting much like our Department of Veteran Affairs. If Veterans and Veteran Service Organizations need to advocate something, it is the need to force major change and restructuring in the way the Military transitions personnel and the way the Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefit Administration treats those who have served their Country. They all seem to find satisfaction in “talking the talk”; now it is time to make them “walk the walk”!
Please refer to this author’s solution, “Mandatory Military Separation Transition Program”, which can be sent to you free of charge. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for your copy (PDF).