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If the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars isn’t startling enough, there’s another military statistic that has a New Jersey congressman outraged.
"Before this day is out, 18 more veterans will have taken their own lives," Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th) said in a December press release. "That is the daily average, it is intolerable, and it has to stop."
That would mean 126 veterans every week or 6,570 every year, across the nation. As shocking as that might seem, Holt’s statistic is accurate, PolitiFact New Jersey found.
The statistic was confirmed in a Dec. 15, 2007 email exchange between Dr. Ira R. Katz, deputy chief officer of Mental Health Services at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Dr. Michael J. Kussman, then the under secretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, which is part of the VA.
The statistic was cited in a CBS News investigation that revealed 6,200 veterans committed suicide in 2005.
When Kussman, a retired Army brigaider general, asked Katz in an email if reports by a media organization about the statistic were accurate, Katz responded: "There are about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans. This follows from CDC (Centers for Disease Control) findings that 20% of suicides are among veterans. It is supported by the CBS numbers. VA’s own data demonstrates 4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us."
Holt spokesman Thomas Seay referred us to a U.S. Court of Appeals 9th Circuit opinion from May 10, 2011 that cites the same statistic from Katz. The opinion criticized the VA’s handling and processing of claims and benefits for veterans in a lawsuit brought by two nonprofit veterans groups against the VA, several of its officials and the federal government.
The VA said in an emailed statement that the actual numbers of veteran suicides isn’t known, but considers the statistic of an average of 18 per day its best estimate.
Limited data is an issue, Seay said.
"Some efforts are underway to improve data collection, particularly as relates to the effectiveness of specific interventions: for example, the Vet2Vet program run out of UMDNJ in Piscataway is working hard to measure the impact of its counseling services," Seay said in an email. " Even so, better national data would help to guide better policy."
Suicide factors for veterans are similar to those for nonveterans, said Jeremy Willinger, director of communications and marketing for the Mental Health Association of New York City.
"In the general population, suicide risk factors include male gender, older age, diminished support (e.g. homelessness or unmarried status), availability of firearms, and co-occurring physical and mental conditions," Willinger said in an email. "This profile describes a large portion of the veteran population.
"Nearly 50 percent of military suicides in 2010 occurred at the hands of privately-owned weapons," Willinger added.
Bob Handy, chairman of California-based Veterans United For Truth, one of the suit’s plaintiffs, said 18 veteran suicides a day is accurate but believes the number might be low "because that’s veterans involved with the Veterans Administration."
"When we filed our lawsuit on June 23, 2007 until the end of last year there were 29,000 veterans who had killed themselves," said Handy, a Korea and Vietnam veteran.
"If a veteran’s family or the veteran himself felt like he or she was thinking of taking his own life pick up the telephone and call 9-1-1 or the appropriate medical people and not necessarily wait for the VA to call them back," he added.
In announcing Congressional approval of $40 million that he sought to support suicide prevention programs for the military, Holt in a December press release said an average of 18 veterans commit suicide daily. The VA said that figure is the best estimate it has. A U.S. Court of Appeals opinion as well as email exchanges between VA officials and a statistical analysis undertaken by a national news network all cite that statistic. We rate the claim True.
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Rush Holt email newsletter "Congress Did Something Right," Dec. 14, 2011, accessed Jan. 20, 2012
Email interviews with Thomas Seay, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-Hopewell), Jan. 21 and 25, 2012
Email interviews with Jeremy Willinger, director of communications and marketing for The Mental Health Association of New York City, Jan. 20, 23 and 25, 2012
U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit opinion for Veterans For Common Sense & Veterans United For Truth Inc. versus U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, et. al., May 10, 2011, accessed Jan. 24 and 25, 2012
Statement by Dr. Ira Katz, deputy chief patient care services officer for mental health, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Dec. 12, 2007, accessed Jan. 24, 2012
Court Blasts VA for Mental Healthcare Failures, Anxiety.org, May 12, 2011, accessed Jan. 24, 2012
CBSNews.com, Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans, Feb. 11, 2009, accessed Jan. 24, 2012
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System website, accessed Jan. 24, 2012
CBSNews.com, "Veteran Suicides: How We Got The Numbers," April 21, 2008, accessed Jan. 24, 2012
CBSNews.com, "VA Hid Suicide Risk, Internal E-Mails Show," April 21, 2008, accessed Jan. 24, 2012
ABC News, "Veterans Suicide Rates Questioned," May 6, 2008, accessed Jan. 24, 2012
Email interview with James McElroy, spokesman, National Institute of Mental Health, Jan. 24, 2012
Phone interview with Bob Handy, chairman, Veterans United For Truth, Jan. 25, 2012
Phone and email interviews with Laurie Tranter, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Jan. 25, 2012
Email interview with Gail Hayes, senior press officer, Centers for Disease Control Injury Center, Jan. 25, 2012
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