Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lawsuit Reveals Massive Suicide Rate Among U.S. Soldiers

Mistah Kurtz -- he dead.
A class action lawsuit filed against the Veterans Administration by Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth has reaped an unusual harvest, in the form of an email from Ira Katz, head of mental health at the VA, to Brigadier General Michael J. Kussman, undersecretary for health at the VA. The email, dated last December, threatens to blow the lid off the scandal of insufficient veterans health treatment, and the lies that have kept this scandal from heretofore getting the traction it deserves.

Here's Jason Leopold at Online Journal reporting:
Kussman had inquired about the accuracy of a news report published that month claiming the suicide rate among veterans was 18 per day.

“McClatchy [Newspapers] alleges that 18 veterans kill themselves everyday and this is confirmed by the VA’s own statistics,” Kussman wrote. “Is that true? Sounds awful but if one is considering 24 million veterans.”

In an email response to Kussman, Ira Katz, the head of mental health at the VA, confirmed the statistics and added “VA’s own data demonstrate 4-5 suicides per day among those who receive care from us.”
These statistics are much larger than official Army statistics quoted only a few months ago at CNN, where it was reported that 5 U.S. soldiers attempt suicide every day, not just those receiving VA treatment. Even at that, the figures represented a significant leap in suicide rates among soldiers.
According to Army statistics, the incidence of U.S. Army soldiers attempting suicide or inflicting injuries on themselves has skyrocketed in the nearly five years since the start of the Iraq war.

Last year's 2,100 attempted suicides -- an average of more than 5 per day -- compares with about 350 suicide attempts in 2002, the year before the war in Iraq began, according to the Army....

The Army lists 89 soldier deaths in 2007 as suicides and is investigating 32 more as possible suicides. Suicide rates already were up in 2006 with 102 deaths, compared with 87 in 2005.
But according to internal VA emails, over 6500 veterans per year are killing themselves. And this news follows the revelations in a RAND Corporation report released last week reporting that over 300,000 of soldiers are returning from the so-called war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and brain injuries. That's over 20% of those deployed with a serious mental illness or nervous system disorder.

Inter Press Service had more to report on the Katz email:
"Shh!" the e-mail begins.

"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?" the e-mail concludes.

According to CBS News, Katz's email was written shortly after the VA provided the network with data showing there were only 790 attempted suicides in all of 2007 -- a fraction of Katz's estimate.

Earlier this month, the city of Dallas, Texas closed its psychiatric unit after the hospital experienced its fourth suicide of the year.

"On Apr. 4, a man fastened a bed sheet to the bottom corner of a door frame, draped a noose over the top, and hanged himself," the Dallas Morning News reported last week. "Before that, a veteran hanged himself on a frame attached to his wheelchair. And in January, two men who met in the psychiatric ward committed suicide in Collin County days after being released."
Clearly, something is very wrong. But this didn't stop the government attorneys in San Francisco for calling for the dismissal of the veterans' lawsuit, claiming, according to a story at the San Jose Mercury News, that the VA has a "world class" health care system, and blaming the crisis on old Vietnam War veterans.

The veterans lawsuit also alleges that many returning soldiers are denied treatment by the VA, and then wait forever on appeal for benefits. From the SJ Mercury News story:
It also takes an average of more than five years for the VA to decide a veteran's appeal of denied coverage, [veterans lawyer Gordon] Erspamer said. In the last six months, 526 vets have died while awaiting word of their appeal within the VA, he noted.
The situation for veterans is tragic, and increasingly, despairing vets, denied treatment, suffering the hell of intrusive memories, depression, and agonizing confusion and surging irritability that is PTSD, or other disorders or injuries, especially brain injuries, increasingly such victims of the insane war drive of Bush and Cheney are killing themselves. And it's getting worse.

This is not a war for democracy. It's a war on democracy, and on the elementary canons of decency and civilized behavior. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in 100,000s of dead Iraqis, millions of refugees, a world economy spinning out of control, and now, at home in the U.S., an obscene harvest of horribly wounded soldiers, many of whom are committing suicide in record numbers.

When will it stop? Not until the population of this country, and all countries in the world, demand it stop. The U.S. citizenry, in this case, has a larger responsibility than most, as its government is the largest, richest, and most bellicose in the world. Yet the population is mesmerized by an electoral process that promises very little. It is not surprising that those with any hope and desire for change are flocking in large numbers to Barack Obama, who presents himself as an agent of change. Whether he is or not will be tested soon enough.

The fear in the society is palpable, a large creaking and groaning sound that appears to be the harbinger of a bloated and bankrupt empire lurching towards catastrophe. The leaders have decided upon war. They want to enlarge that war to include Iran, with Hillary Clinton the latest to jump on that bus. Obama, too, says "all options are on the table" when it comes to keeping Iran from having nuclear weapons, mimicking the language of torture president Bush.

According to T.S. Eliot, the world will end not with a bang, but with a whimper. That whimper may be the sound of a hopeless veteran staring at eternity, full of pain and loss, a loaded pistol in one hand, or maybe a bottle of pills. A society that cannot serve the needs of those it sends to fight its dirty and predatory wars is a society that ----------.

I'll let my readers fill in that blank.


Anonymous said...

Given that over 50% of all inpatient psychiatric care is delivered in prisons, that mental illness has been criminalized to a great extent, and that appropriate mental health services are neither accessible or affordable for the majority of the general population, it comes as no surprise that the suicide and acute mental illness rate for veterans is vastly underreported. Moreover, so many thousands of veterans were given general discharges and cut from VA benefits, that the VA numbers don't reflect the whole of the veteran population.

Valtin said...

This is an excellent point not to be overlooked.

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