Letter from Washington | Alicia Mundy
"Epidemic" of military suicides investigated
From 2004 to 2005, 433 people who have served in the military committed suicide in Washington state. That's one of the findings of an investigation...
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — From 2004 to 2005, 433 people who have served in the military committed suicide in Washington state.
That's one of the findings of an investigation by CBS News on what the network calls an "epidemic" of military suicides. In 2005 alone, there were 6,256 suicides nationally among those who served in the armed forces — about 120 deaths per week. The two-part CBS report has shocked many members of Congress, because the figures compiled by CBS are higher than other studies have suggested.
"Even for all of the tragic stories I have heard, these facts are astonishing," said Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat and an advocate for veterans.
More startling, veterans between 20 and 24 years old — the group most likely to have been in Iraq or Afghanistan — killed themselves at twice the rate of civilians of the same age, CBS found.
The revelations have added another layer of concern to the congressional debate over the war, angering Democrats who believe the administration suppresses negative information.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, wants the House Veterans Affairs and the Defense Appropriations committees to join forces to review whether the military and the Veterans Affairs Administration have minimized the number of suicides. He intends to take this up after Thanksgiving.
CBS got the suicide data from official death records in 45 states (data from five states were unavailable), not from the VA.
So how many military members total have committed suicide? Who knows, Murray said.
"There's been no willingness to provide the information by the VA for five years," she said.
That's what prompted CBS to do the investigation. To analyze the data, the network turned to a noted statistician and epidemiologist, Dr. Steve Rathburn at the University of Georgia. He had no connections to the VA, nor did CBS pay him, the network said.
CBS producer Keith Summa said CBS News consulted many experts from Harvard, Columbia University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who work with the VA, during the investigation.
In reaction to the story, the VA's Assistant Secretary Lisette Mondello complained that CBS did not give the VA its raw data to review.
CBS producer Keith Summa noted that during the interview with the Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's deputy chief mental-health care services officer, Katz estimated from "a back of an envelope calculation" that there are about 5,000 suicides per year among those who had been in the armed forces — a higher figure than Murray had previously heard.
According to the CBS data, people who had served in the military account for about a quarter of the state's suicides. Dicks wishes it weren't so; and he wishes he'd hear about it from the VA, and not the media.
Letter From Washington is an examination of the culture of politics and power in the nation's capital. Alicia Mundy can be reached at 202-622-7457 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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