Earlier this week the government’s top psychiatric researcher said that the suicide epidemic among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is due to inadequate mental health care, and may actually exceed combat deaths.
Last month the Veterans administration was named in a class-action lawsuit, and this week the VA came under fire at a Senate Veterans Affairs committee hearing, where VA officials were grilled for low-balling their reports of suicide attempts at 790 a year. However, an internal email puts that number at more like 12,000. Dr. Ira Katz, the head of mental health at the VA, summed up their approach to reporting at the start of an email to Ev Chasen, his department’s communications director.
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?
I think this is something we should discuss among ourselves, before issuing a press release. Is the fact we are stopping them good news, or is the sheer number bad news? And is this more than we have ever seen before?
Today Foreign Policy in Focus put up a helpful breakdown of the problem, and the systemic failure that leads to it. One particularly telling fact that answers Chasen’s question, that there is indeed no good news regarding the VA’s track record in helping veterans:
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.
Lest we forget that the Pentagon plays it’s own number games to obscure the costs of the war…
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.
Of course these numbers illustrate the scale and complexity of the problem, but the war has taken a toll on the lives of soldiers that most of us can’t understand, and we need to be doing much, much more for them. The VA directors can take a small step towards meeting this responsibility with an honest assessment of the human cost of the war.