Suicide watch

Our view : War veterans at risk need care and follow-up

July 29, 2008

In its first year of operation, a suicide hot line has prevented 1,221 veterans from taking their lives. That's the sobering word from the Veterans Affairs Department, which launched the help line last July. We say sobering because no one can say how many others might have been saved had the government that sent men and women into war in Iraq and Afghanistan been adequately prepared to serve the numbers of returning soldiers at risk of suicide because of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Just as the Bush administration lacked a postwar plan for Iraq, it lacked the resources and staff to treat the physical and mental health concerns of service members returning from combat. The most disgraceful example was the poor treatment of many war veterans recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, conditions that led to firings and congressional hearings.

The suicide prevention hot line was started by the VA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration after families of at-risk soldiers, veterans groups and others complained. The hot line has since served 22,000 veterans. How many are Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans isn't readily available because hot line counselors don't routinely ask.

But the need is there. In 2006, the Army reported the highest suicide rate since it began recording the deaths in 1980 - 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers. Of the 99 soldiers who killed themselves that year, nearly a third took their lives while in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Army reported.

A VA study found that 53 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who committed suicide between 2001 and 2005 were reservists or National Guardsmen, citizen soldiers who may be less able to navigate the bureaucracy to get help.

A Rand Corp. study released in April found that 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffered from PTSD or depression, which puts them at greater risk for other psychological problems or suicide attempts.

A suicide prevention hot line may be the first attempt by a veteran to seek help. In 90 percent of the calls, a veteran was contacted and referred for help. That's as it must be. After surviving the battlefield, American service members can't be forgotten at home.

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