Monday, May 19, 2008

Iraq Vet Suicides May Exceed Combat Deaths; V.A. Admits Lying About Severity Of The Problem

The Department of Veterans Affairs lied to Congress about the number of veterans who have tried to kill themselves, according to Sen. Patty Murray, who cited internal e-mails that put the number at 12,000 a year while the department was publicly saying it was fewer than 800.

Some experts now predict that suicide deaths among Iraq veterans will exceed the number of Iraq combat deaths.

“The suicide rate is a red alarm bell to all of us,” the Washington state Democrat said. Murray added that the VA’s mental health programs are overwhelmed by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans even as the department seeks to downplay the situation.

“We are not your enemy, we are your support team, and unless we get accurate information we can’t be there to do our jobs,” Murray said.

VA deputy secretary Gordon Mansfield acknowledged the numbers discrepancy and apologized during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.

But Murray remained skeptical, saying the VA has shown a pattern of misleading Congress when it comes to the increasing number of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan seeking help and putting a strain on Defense Department and VA facilities and programs.

“I used to teach preschool, and when you bring up a 3-year-old and tell them they have to stop lying, they understand the consequences,” Murray said. “The VA doesn’t. They need to stop hiding the fact this war is costing us in so many ways.”

The existence of the e-mails, uncovered as part of a class-action lawsuit filed against the VA in San Francisco, was first reported in April by CBS News.

“Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities,” Katz wrote in a Feb. 13 email to Ev Chasen, the department’s communication director. “Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”

Chasen responded: “I think this is something we should discuss among ourselves, before issuing a press release. Is the fact we are stopping them good news, or is the sheer number bad news? And is this more than we have ever seen before?”

CBS reported that the VA earlier had provided the network with false data showing only 790 attempted suicides in all of 2007.

Murray said she was “angry and upset” with the VA. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said he too was troubled.

“How do we trust what you are saying when every time we turn around we find out that what you are saying publicly is different from what you are saying privately?” Murray asked Mansfield. “How can we trust what you are saying today?”

Mansfield responded that the situation was unfortunate and did not “send the right message” to Congress or the public.

Murray pointed to a RAND Corp. study released last week that showed 320,000 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have traumatic brain injury and 300,000 troops have post traumatic stress disorder or major depression.

Of those with PTSD or depression, Murray said, only half sought treatment and only half of those have received treatment that was “minimally” adequate.

“I think we ought to be worried,” Murray said, adding that as with Vietnam-era veterans, some of the violent symptoms might not show up for years.

“They can be walking time bombs for decades,” Murray said. “I hope everyone in the VA understands this.”

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