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"Stunning": CBS News Discovers "Hidden Epidemic" of Military Suicides

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Tonight CBS will air the first of a two-part series on the "hidden epidemic" of military suicides, revealing numbers that CBS calls "stunning." The report examines data on the suicide rate amongst veterans once they return home, which indicates a serious mental health issue — and a hidden mortality rate.

"We first started researching military suicides because it had never been done before," said Armen Keteyian, CBS News' chief investigative correspondent in a statement forwarded by CBS News. "But when all the data was collected, we were astonished. I had no idea how much of an epidemic CBS uncovered. We expect this to be a wake up call."

Keteyian previewed the segment on the "CBS Early Show" today, saying that the CBS five-month study found that vets were "more than twice as likely to commit suicide in 2005 as non-vets." Chillingly, though the Veterans Affairs Department estimates that "some 5,000 ex-servicemen and women will commit suicide this year,' that's a lowball estimate. Said Keteyian: "Our numbers are much higher than that, overall."

[Update, 5:30pm: CBS has just released some of those numbers: "At least 120 Americans who served in the U.S. military killed themselves per week in 2005, CBS News learned in a five-month investigation into veteran suicides. That's 6,256 veteran suicides in one year, in 45 states."]

According to a CBS spokesperson, the report represents the first time an actual count of veteran suicides at home has been tallied, as opposed to estimates. "We also have number from the DOD of active duty suicides that we believed have never been reported before dating back to 1995," said the spokesperson. "Many believe, including the family members, that they VA hasn't done a true nationwide count of the numbers (which are stunning) because they just don't want to know." This echoes findings in a CBS report on the matter back in January 2004, which focused on soldier suicides during deployment but which also noted that the Pentagon did not count post-release suicides, and that a pre-Iraq war army study had predicted "an impending soldier-suicide crisis" (which, according to critics, was "largely ignored").

The two-part series will focus tonight on the numbers, and tomorrow on how the Dept. of Veterans Affairs is handling this problem (our guess, based on the above: Not well). According to CBS, tonight's segment runs 5 minutes — long for a newscast (though tonight is a single-sponsor broadcast (Pfizer) which will definitely save a few minutes).

Military suicides have been in the news recently owing to the passage last month of the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (HR. 327), named for 22-year-old Army Reservist Joshua Omvig who commited suicide a few months after his return from Iraq. The bill "directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a comprehensive program to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans," by virtue of better screening of veteran patients for mental health, tracking of veterans, better suicide prevention training for VA staff (including designating one suicide-specific counselor at each facility), and a 24-hour mental-health care, including a hotline. The legislation also requires the VA to report back on "status, timeline and costs for complete implementation within 2 years" within 90 days (i.e. by late January). Hopefully they can reverse the trend. If not, hopefully CBS will still be there.

The Veteran Suicide Epidemic
[CBS News] (video here)
Vets' Suicide Rate "Stunning" [CBS News]

Related:
Veterans' Suicides: a Hidden Cost of Bush's Wars
[Alternet]
Paul Rieckhoff: Suicide: Vets Fight The War Within [HuffPo]
H.R. 5771 [109th]: Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act [GovTrack.us]