Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Study: Reservist vets commit most suicides

National Guard and Reserves more likely to commit suicide

By Kimberly Hefling - The Associated Press
Posted : Tuesday Feb 12, 2008 7:46:57 EST

National Guard and Reserve troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan comprise more than half the veterans who committed suicide after returning home from those combat zones, according to new government data obtained by The Associated Press.

A Department of Veterans Affairs analysis of continuing research of deaths among veterans of both wars found that Guard or Reserve members were 53 percent of the veteran suicides from 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, through the end of 2005.

The research, conducted by the agency’s Office of Environmental Epidemiology, provides the first demographic look at suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who left the military — a situation that veterans and mental health advocates worry might worsen as the wars drag on.

Military leaders have leaned heavily on Guard and Reserve troops in the wars. At certain times in 2005, members of the Guard and Reserve made up nearly half of the troops fighting in Iraq.

Overall, they were almost 28 percent of all U.S. military forces deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan or in support of the operations, according to data from the Defense Department through the end of 2007.

Many Guard and Reserve members have done multiple tours that kept them away from home for 18 months. When they returned home, some who live far from military installations or VA facilities have met with difficulty getting access to mental health counseling or treatment, activists have said.

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the study’s findings reinforce the argument that Guard and Reserve troops need more help as they transition back into the civilian world. The military’s effort to re-screen reservists for mental and physical problems three months after they return home is a positive step, Rieckhoff said, but a more long-term comprehensive approach is needed to help the troops — particularly in their first six months at home.

“National Guardsmen and reservists are literally in Baghdad in one week and in Brooklyn the next, and that transition is incredibly tough,” Rieckhoff said.

VA has said there does not appear to be an epidemic of suicide among returning veterans, and suicide among the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is comparable to the same demographic group in the general population. However, an escalating suicide rate in the Army, as well as high-profile suicides such as the death of Joshua Omvig, an Iowa reservist who shot himself in front of his mother in December 2005 after an 11-month tour in Iraq, have alarmed some members of Congress and mental health advocates.

In November, President Bush signed the Joshua Omvig suicide prevention bill, which directed VA to improve its mental health training for staff and do a better job of screening and treating veterans.

According to VA’s research, 144 veterans committed suicide from Oct. 7, 2001 — the start of the war in Afghanistan — through the end of 2005. Of those, 35 veterans, or 24 percent, served in the reserves and 41, or 29 percent, had served in the National Guard. Sixty-eight — 47 percent — had been active-duty troops.

Statistics from 2006 and 2007 were not yet available, VA said, because the study was based in part on data from the National Death Index, which is still being compiled.

Among the total population of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been discharged from the military, nearly half are formerly active duty and a little more than half were in the Guard and reserves, according to VA.

Among those studied, more than half of the veterans who committed suicide were ages 20 to 29. Nearly three-quarters used firearms to take their lives. Nearly 82 percent were white.

About one in five was seen at least once at a VA facility.

Last year, the VA started a suicide hot line. VA and the military have also made other improvements in suicide prevention care, such as hiring more counselors and increasing mental health screening.

“The challenge is getting people to come to us before they commit suicide, knowing they can come and get help and knowing they have access to those resources,” said Alison Aikele, a VA spokeswoman.

The VA study does not include those who committed suicide in the war zones or those who remained in the military after returning home from war.

Last year, the Army said its suicide rate in 2006 rose to 17.3 per 100,000 troops, the highest level in 26 years of record-keeping. The Army said recently that as many as 121 soldiers committed suicide last year. If all are confirmed, the number would be more than double the total reported in 2001.

Some mental health advocates have complained that there is no comprehensive tracking in one place of suicide among those who served in the wars, whether they were still in the military or discharged.

In October, AP reported that preliminary research from VA had found that from the start of the war in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, until the end of 2005, 283 troops who served in the wars who had been discharged from the military had committed suicide.

VA later said the number was reduced to 144 because some of the veterans counted were active duty and not discharged when they committed suicide.

Okay time for me to be personal, this issue is one I have to deal with daily, I am a Army veteran with severe PTSD, it does not make me a "crazy person" it just means I have "issues" hell I have lifelong subscriptions. I made my first suicide attempt while I was still in the Army a few years after the "stressor incident" occurred. I had been drinking (self medicating is the term the shrinks use) it was the only way I could get to sleep for a few hours. My first attempt was with booze and pills, luckily I was found and taken to DDEMAC at Fort Gordon, Ga, where I spent the next two weeks in a lockdown ward, was referred to the Base Drug and Alcohol Abuse Program where I spent the next year being tested and counseled. I was never diagnosed with PTSD or any other problem other than substance abuse. I like many other soldiers refused to admit to my "demons" and found ways to "control them" or so I thought. Like many soldiers, I had problems with my wife and kids, my drinking did not help. I left the Army in Sep 1982 as a Staff Sergeant. I went to work for the Postal Service and after transferring to Georgia, I then joined the Army National Guard in 1988, I volunteered to become activated with the 48th Brigade when they were called up for Operation Desert Storm in November 1990, I was assigned to an Infantry Battalion my primary MOS, I was assigned to HHC, 121st Inf Battalion in Milledgeville, Ga, I was made a Squad Leader for a 4.2 mortar platoon. I served in Oman at Khasab Air Force base on the tip of Oman just across from Iran, we used to watch the smugglers make their runs at dusk from UAE to Iran with their contraband.

I came back from that war, and felt at a loss with my life, I missed the Army life, but it did not pay enough for me to quit my Postal Career and go back on active duty. I took up drinking heavily again, the stress from earlier episodes in my Army career kept reliving themselves, during work, at home, in my dreams, the nightmares were bad. I went thru 4 marriages and my children refused to visit with me when I was supposed to have them in the summer. Due to my behavior and drinking. Looking back on it now, I can't blame them. In May 2000 the stress had caused me to have extreme health problems, 7 heart attacks and a failed triple bypass, I walked away from the Postal Service before the job stress killed me. I did not get a medical retirement, I just quit, walked away from a 17 year career.

I had spent my entire adult life either in the Army or at the Postal Service, from age 18, thru age 4527 years, 10 years Army and 17 years Postal Service. I just threw it away by walking out that door. I felt my life was over, the nightmares were not even being controlled by the drinking any longer, I had basically had a complete meltdown in May and June 2000. On a June night I drank about a fifth of Jack Daniels and took a handful of pain pills, I wanted the pain to end, the nightmares to end. I woke up three days later, when my ex wife's Uncle came banging on my door. Uncle Bill made some coffee and saw the booze bottles and the empty medications and we talked, he persuaded me to move in with him and try and get my life back together. Like me, Uncle Bill also has PTSD and had come to terms with it, I still refused that label. I knew I had problems but never accepted it might be PTSD caused by what I had seen and done and had been thru since I was 18 years old.

It would be another meltdown in November 2002 before I asked my new girlfriend to help me get an appointment with VA's mental health department, I had learned more of the Edgewood experiments secrets than I should have, I went three weeks without sleep and became suicidal again.

The VA was very thorough in their assessment, it took 4 months of interviews and tests, before a team of 3 doctors determined I have PTSD and it is service connected from incidents that happened while on active duty back in 1974 and 1975, 1979 in Germany, in 1981-1982 at NTC, watching soldiers maimed and killed in training accidents.

I take many meds now for the symptoms of PTSD, I still have thoughts of suicide and I can't remember a day without flashbacks or nightmares, I keep my mental health appointments and my new wife works hard to keep me focused, and we take it one day at a time.

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