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Vet suicide rate 'not getting better'

9:17 AM, Feb 12, 2013   |    comments
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The historic pace of troop suicides confounding the military through the war years is following service members into civilian life, according to preliminary analyses of new veteran data.

Although only 4.5% of men ages 18-34 are veterans, veterans account for 10.8% of suicides in that age group, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The numbers are based on death data collected by the VA from 21 states.

"We're very concerned," says Janet Kemp, head of the VA's suicide prevention program. "I think that there's an indication that (active-duty suicide trends) are not getting better and that I'm very worried about this new, younger group of veterans that are coming out and coming into our system."

A similar pattern exists for the men ages 35-54 where 21.7% of suicides are by veterans who make up only 13.9% of that group. The disproportionate pattern goes away for older male veterans, the data show.

"There may be a hint of increased risk for that particular (post-9/11) age group," says Robert Bossarte, a VA epidemiologist.

Department data show that the highest rate of attempted suicides is among veterans under the age of 30.

Veterans advocates have worried for years about suicides among those who served in or during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. "The community is so ravaged by suicides right now," says Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of the 250,000-member Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, "I mean, I know guys who have had 10 (veterans who served) in their battalion who have committed suicide."

High numbers of these deaths among active-duty troops are well documented. The Pentagon reported its worst year in recent history for military suicides: 349 deaths in 2012, including record numbers of soldiers and sailors killing themselves and near-records within the Air Force and Marines.

The VA has struggled to track suicides among veterans, tabulating rates for only about one of three who use department services. A concerted effort in recent years to collect suicide data from each state has provided broader insight.

The statistics show that the largest number of suicides among veterans occur among the older generations that make up the vast majority of the nation's 22 million former servicemembers.

The VA estimates that veterans die by suicide at the rate of about 22 per day, a pattern that has remained largely unchanged for several years.

The VA has boosted hiring for its Veterans Crisis Line, 800-273-8255, which has been responsible for 26,000 rescues in recent years.

Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

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