Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, called the suicide rate among service members an epidemic.
"There's probably a tidal wave of suicides coming"
- The data the suicide rate is based on are incomplete
- Examples of uncounted: "suicide by cop," by overdoses and by vehicle crashes
- VA makes appeal for more uniform reporting of suicide data
(CNN) November 13, 2013 -- Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That's a suicide every 65 minutes. As shocking as the number is, it may actually be higher.
The figure, released by the Department of Veterans Affairs in February, is based on the agency's own data and numbers reported by 21 states from 1999 through 2011. Those states represent about 40% of the U.S. population. The other states, including the two largest (California and Texas) and the fifth-largest (Illinois), did not make data available.
Who wasn't counted?
People like Levi Derby, who hanged himself in his grandfather's garage in Illinois on April 5, 2007. He was haunted, says his mother, Judy Casper, by an Afghan child's death. He had handed the girl a bottle of water, and when she came forward to take it, she stepped on a land mine.
When Derby returned home, he locked himself in a motel room for days. Casper saw a vacant stare in her son's eyes. A while later, Derby was called up for a tour of Iraq. He didn't want to kill again. He went AWOL and finally agreed to an "other than honorable" discharge.
Derby was not in the VA system, and Illinois did not send in data on veteran suicides to the VA. Experts have no doubt that people are being missed in the national counting of veteran suicides. Luana Ritch, the veterans and military families coordinator in Nevada, helped publish an extensive report on that state's veteran suicides.
Nearly one in five suicides nationally is a veteran, even though veterans make up about 10% of the U.S. population, the News21 analysis found.
The authors of the VA study, Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, included many cautions about the interpretation of their data, though they stand by the reliability of their findings. Bossarte said there was a consistency in the samples that allowed them to comfortably project the national figure of 22.
But more than 34,000 suicides from the 21 states that reported data to the VA were discarded because the state death records failed to indicate whether the deceased was a veteran. That's 23% of the recorded suicides from those states. So the study looked at 77% of the recorded suicides in 40% of the U.S. population.
The VA report itself acknowledged "significant limitations" of the available data and identified flaws in its report. "The ability of death certificates to fully capture female veterans was particularly low; only 67% of true female veterans were identified. Younger or unmarried veterans and those with lower levels of education were also more likely to be missed on the death certificate."
Victor Montgomery, author of Healing Suicidal Veterans, has recently been named National Director of Operation Not Forgotten (ONF). Vic will serve on the Board of Directors of Life Renewed International a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization. He will develop and manage the newly organized national network of Vet Life Communities − veterans helping veterans, support care groups throughout the United States. ONF is a program of Life Renewed International a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Operation Not Forgotten is not connected to the VA or any other government agency.
The mission of Operation Not Forgotten (ONF) is to provide services that support the well-being of veterans and their families. We connect them with other veterans -- buddies they can trust and relate with to coach them through any difficulties. Our purpose is to measurably enhance and improve a veteran's quality of life and functioning in six areas: mental, physical, emotional, social, occupational and spiritual.
Many veterans have put themselves in harm's way and paid the ultimate price to protect the freedoms we enjoy. We have made it our mission to stand beside them and support them by developing a network of community care groups that support access to appropriate, quality services and care. Through our ONF Vet Life Communities, we are changing the way veterans and their families are helped.
There are 23 million veterans in this country today − 2013. Studies report approximately 17 million or 76% of those veterans have never set foot in a VA Medical Center or VA Outpatient clinic. Most are reluctant to admit difficulties or communicate their pain for fear it may be perceived as weakness. Many fear the potential label, or stigma of mental illness. So where do they go for free help... when suicide ideation, domestic violence, substance abuse, chronic depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms begin to destroy their lives and their marriages fall apart?
Research shows that one in three returning from combat is being diagnosed with serious Post Traumatic Stress symptoms, and less than 40% will receive help. With our nation's present conflicts, new generations of veterans are returning home, many of whom have substantial psychopathology and are encountering significant barriers in accessing care.
In response to the needs of our courageous service men and women, Life Renewed's mission, Operation Not Forgotten, is developing a network of Vet Life Communities, veteran to veteran care groups. Vet Life Communities are designed to make available to all veterans, a meeting place, and confidential and anonymous care groups offering tools to assess their current level of functioning and determine what, if any, help or coaching they may need as they transition back into life outside the military. Groups for male and female veterans are separate to ensure privacy, openness and effective discussions. There will also be separate meetings for family members. These care groups are free and are available to military veterans of all ages.
Operation Not Forgotten is designed specifically for veterans by military personnel and mental health professionals.
Vet Life Community is a network of local community weekly support meeting - care groups, the buddy system, veterans helping veterans face to face - offering tools necessary to assess current levels of functioning and determine what, if any, help or coaching veterans may need as they transition back into life outside the military.
The care groups will be similarly structured to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) - a tried and proven model - the most effective intervention in the United States. The Vet Life Service office is designed to assist statewide Vet Life Community care groups to train and certify their group leaders; support their local community outreaches; and supply all local community care groups with outreach literature.
The literature and technology support made available to leaders and/or Life Coaches for each care group meeting includes: