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  • Mission Roll Call

The VA May Be Wildly Undercounting Veteran Suicides

This article originally appeared in the National Review


A new study suggests the possibility that federal data may be failing to capture the full extent of this crisis.

The annual suicide rate among American veterans may be more than double what federal officials estimate because of the undercounting of drug-overdose deaths and other recording errors, according to a new study.

In collaboration with the University of Alabama and Duke University, America’s Warrior Partnership examined eight states’ census mortality statistics from 2014 to 2018. The researchers discovered thousands of suspected or confirmed suicides that weren’t accounted for by government data. If these figures are extrapolated, it would increase the estimate of veterans who kill themselves each day from 17, the official number provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to 44.

One explanation for this apparent discrepancy is that the VA’s statistics on suicides don’t count “Self-Injury Mortality,” which the study defines — borrowing from the NIH and the CDC — “as accidents or undetermined deaths aligned with self-harm/suicidal behavior, which have been attributed predominantly to overdose deaths.” Another reason is that only former military members who served 180 days on active duty are considered veterans for purposes of the VA’s count.

The government should be more transparent. The fact that we have 17 veterans a day killing themselves already is a tragedy. But to think that that number may be a drastic undercount — that 27 more veterans may be killing themselves each day — is appalling.

Twenty years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still don’t have support systems in place to care for those who put their lives on the line for our freedom. This ought to be a source of immense shame for our country, yet it’s rarely talked about.

One of the reasons for this, says Cole Lyle, the executive director of Mission Roll Call, a veterans-advocacy group, is that “the collective burden of the conflicts of the war on terror is shouldered by a small and precipitously declining share of American families” who don’t have the means to lobby on behalf of their own interests and needs.

Lyle is dedicated to changing that. To solve the undercounting problem, Mission Roll Call is urging the Department of Defense and the VA to provide medical professionals with a tool to validate military service as a part of death records. This would go a long way toward producing more accurate veteran-suicide statistics by standardizing how health-care providers track service members’ deaths across states and municipalities.

Mission Roll Call also suggests incorporating other sources into the data set. Lyle is confident that integrating the data on VA mental-health-care-benefit usage and state deaths with military-service data will enable officials at all levels of government to develop a measurable veteran-suicide and self-injury-mortality metric. Lastly, Lyle would like the suicides of former military personnel who served fewer than 180 days of active duty to be counted, so their legacies aren’t forgotten.

To prevent suicides from happening in the first place, Lyle thinks the VA should adopt a more proactive approach to tackling the problem. Right now, the VA is reacting to the crisis without adequately confronting the underlying causes that lead former servicemen and women to the brink of suicide. He thinks the VA should increase funding for community organizations “that have touch points in veterans’ communities where the VA has not adequately engaged.”

For far too long, we have ignored the problem of veteran suicides. With the VA set to receive a 2023 budget of $314.1 billion — an increase of $29.5 billion, or more than 10 percent, from 2022 — there’s no better time than now for it to act. Because the longer this crisis persists, the darker the stain on America’s moral conscience becomes.

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