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VA’s bad data puts vets at risk

Ending veteran suicide is much harder without accurate data

This article originally appeared on Dallas Morning News

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is dramatically undercounting the number of former

service members who have died by suicide, according to new research performed by America’s Warrior Partnership, in collaboration with teams at the University of Alabama and Duke University.

The actual rate of veteran suicide is more than a third higher than what’s being reported in

official statistics. And that rate jumped even higher when researchers broadened their review of death records to include other forms of “self-injury mortality,” which includes drug overdoses and other deaths of despair. That’s about 44 former service members who die from non-natural causes each day, instead of the 17 the VA reports.

We must do a much better job identifying, reaching and helping veterans in need.

The VA receives and processes data on veteran suicide from the CDC via individual state death records. Each state collects data from local coroners in counties and cities in their jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, that means the agency’s current methodology overlooks all but the most obvious cases of veteran suicide, mostly for reasons outside the agency’s control.

For instance, a person’s service status is not always clear to coroners when logging the death, and this ambiguity is not always pursued to a conclusion. If the veteran status is not correctly logged, the VA doesn’t currently have the mechanisms in place to cross-check with Department of Defense service records. The result is that such a veteran is excluded from the VA’s aggregate numbers, and that, tragically, leads to veterans being buried without the military honors they earned in life.

The America’s Warrior Partnership’s study, which included data from the Department of

Defense, examined five years of data from eight representative states.

The partnership used a standard of “self-inflicted mortality” or SIM, that encompasses diverse modes of fatal self-harm, including drug overdose or other instances of death by a thousand cuts.

By contrast, the VA defines suicide more narrowly, catching only the most clear-cut and common cases of suicide, such as gunshot wounds. But even if the circumstances and intent surrounding the death are not clear, that doesn’t mean the circumstances leading to the death didn’t cause hopelessness and despair that led to substance abuse.

We owe it to the veterans already lost to suicide to do the hard work and prevent former service members in crisis from becoming another overlooked statistic. As veteran suicide rates continue to outpace that of civilians, we all need to do better.

My organization, Mission Roll Call, routinely polls veterans on post-service care concerns and

shares the results with policymakers in hopes of being a catalyst of change. One of our latest

polls found that 71% of veterans are not satisfied with the VA’s efforts and policies to reduce

veteran suicide.

We should listen to them and get to the root of this problem. Imagine what would happen if our former service members who lost hope had been given the meaningful connections and tools they needed to succeed and thrive. Our communities are losing a precious commodity.

The VA must take measures to regain the confidence of the struggling veterans that depend on them. They can use studies like the one conducted by AWP for guidance as they begin to tailor their methodological process to better capture the full scope of the problem they are solving for.

The VA can only meet the needs of our veterans if they have the right information from the


Any number of veterans in crisis is too many, and every veteran life lost to suicide is an

opportunity to do better.

DFW native Cole Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, former policy adviser in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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