Report: Veteran suicides far outstrip combat deaths in post-9/11 wars

New Colorado law establishes pilot prevention program in El Paso County

By: - July 8, 2021 5:00 am

A U.S. Army soldier bows her head in prayer at a welcome home ceremony for troops returning from Iraq on Nov. 10, 2011, at Fort Carson. More than 100 soldiers from the 549th Quartermaster Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade returned after a seven-month deployment. They played a key role in removing excess equipment from Iraq as other troops withdrew from the region. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, 7,057 U.S. military service members were killed in war operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deaths by suicide among veterans and service members who served post-9/11 amount to more than four times that number, according to a recent report that’s part of the Costs of War project from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

The June 21 report, by Boston University post-doctoral student Thomas Howard Suitt, estimates that 30,177 active duty personnel and veterans who served in the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide.

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“As we come closer to the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we must reflect on the mental health cost of the Global War on Terror,” Suitt wrote in the report. “The human cost for our veterans and service members far outweighs even the most crippling financial costs we have endured to send them to war.”

The report cites a 2020 survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which polled 1,705 veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two-thirds of the people who responded knew a post-9/11 veteran who had attempted suicide, and 62% knew a post-9/11 veteran who had died by suicide.

Slightly less than half — 44% — of the survey respondents said they had experienced suicidal thoughts since joining the military.

Factors contributing to high suicide rates among service members and veterans post-9/11, according to the Watson Institute report:

  • the rise of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which led to more traumatic brain injuries
  • the War on Terror’s unusually long duration
  • scientific advances in medical treatment that mean service members can heal from physical injuries and stay in the military longer, often deploying multiple times
  • “the American public’s disinterest in the post-9/11 wars”

“Diminishing approval of the wars, coupled with damaging veteran stereotypes, may contribute to today’s rising service member and veteran suicide rates,” the report said. “Much like the Vietnam War, public approval of combat operations in Iraq has declined over the last 20 years from 71 percent in 2003 to 43 percent in 2018.”

Anyone experiencing a mental health or substance use-related crisis can reach trained professionals at Colorado Crisis Services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 for free support.

A 2020 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows the suicide rate among veterans, adjusted for changes in the population’s age and sex, increased nearly 50% since 2005. In 2018, the veteran suicide rate was 27.5 suicide deaths per 100,000 people — equating to an average of 17.6 deaths nationwide per day.

The VA’s most recent data excludes reservists and National Guardsmen, the report pointed out. And while the suicide rate among the U.S. population as a whole increased 30% since 2005, that increase is “not commensurate with those of veterans overall and certainly not with more recent younger veterans of the post-9/11 wars,” Suitt noted. For the 18-34 age group, the veteran suicide rate increased 76% over that time frame.

To get to the estimate of 30,177 suicide deaths for post-9/11 veterans and service members, Suitt used rates provided by the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention to “conservatively estimate” 22,261 suicide deaths among veterans who served in the Global War on Terror operations. He then added the 5,116 active-duty service members who died by suicide, along with the 1,193 National Guard service members and 1,607 Reserve component service members who died by suicide between 2011 and 2020 but were excluded from the VA’s data.

Colorado prepares to launch veteran suicide prevention pilot program

In Colorado — home to six military installations and approximately 373,000 veterans — legislators recently passed a bill that creates a pilot program for veteran suicide prevention. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed Senate Bill 21-129 into law June 23.

“It’s our duty to support veterans during and after their return to civilian life, and behavioral health is one of those needs that often goes unmet,” Polis said at the bill signing. “This pilot program is just an early step in expanding critical support for Colorado’s veterans.”

SB-129 signing
Gov. Jared Polis signs Senate Bill 21-129 into law during a ceremony at Lincoln Memorial Park in Denver on June 23, 2021. The bill was sponsored by Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo (far left), and Rep. David Ortiz, D-Littleton (front right). (Screenshot/Governor Jared Polis YouTube)

SB-129 tasks the Department of Human Services with establishing the four-year program, aimed at reducing suicide and thoughts of suicide among veterans in El Paso County, where there is a concentration of military bases and other facilities. DHS will contract with a nonprofit or educational organization to provide “no-cost, stigma-free, confidential, and effective” mental health and substance use treatment for up to 700 U.S. veterans and their families.

Sponsors of SB-129 include two veterans: Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo and Rep. David Ortiz of Littleton. Both lawmakers are Democrats.

El Paso County was chosen because of the “grassroots work” being done by local organizations supporting veterans, Garcia told Newsline, as well as for the county’s high suicide rate. One veteran dies by suicide per week in El Paso County, Garcia said.

From 2005 through 2020, 3,069 veterans died by suicide in Colorado, including 625 in El Paso County, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Garcia said he believes the state has the resources to expand the pilot suicide prevention program to other counties in the not-so-distant future.

SB-129 is light on specifics about the program but dictates that it must have an email, web form or single phone number that veterans and family members can use to inquire about services and schedule appointments. Also, available services must include treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, military sexual trauma, substance use disorders and symptoms of traumatic brain injury, as well as other conditions that contribute to thoughts of suicide.

DHS gets $1.66 million in state general fund money to set up the suicide prevention program this year and $2.92 million next year. Funding over the following three years will depend on lawmakers’ budget priorities. The pilot program lasts through June 30, 2025, unless the Legislature chooses to extend services or expand them to other areas of the state.

DHS will report on the program’s effectiveness to legislators in the Colorado General Assembly each year.

The bill passed in the House on a vote of 53 to 11 with bipartisan support, though the 11 “no” votes all belonged to Republicans. It passed unanimously in the Senate.

Support for veterans goes beyond behavioral health care

Another bill that Polis signed into law in June allows employers to give special preference to veterans in the hiring process. Ortiz and Garcia, who sponsored House Bill 21-1065, believe it will go a long way in helping veterans — who are more likely than civilians to be unemployed — to lead fulfilling lives after military service. The law also permits hiring preference for the spouses of veterans with disabilities and spouses of service members killed in the line of duty.

“It was finding family again; it was finding a meaning and a purpose and a mission in the community and finding employment again, that really put me on the right path for a successful transition,” Ortiz, who uses a wheelchair due to a helicopter crash during military service, said at the bill signing. “This is going to positively impact veteran lives and really give some weight to the saying that Colorado truly is the best for veterans.”

A third bill signed by Polis, Senate Bill 21-32, provides grant funding for a veterans’ mobile support unit. People staffing the mobile unit will travel to help veterans living in rural and hard-to-reach areas of the state and veterans experiencing homelessness. They’ll distribute supplies and provide transportation for veterans, as well as help with business and job opportunities. SB-32’s sponsors: Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat, along with Ortiz.

All of that veterans-focused legislation is important for addressing the larger problem of veteran mental health, and helping to mitigate the factors that lead to suicide, Garcia said.

Improving access to supports and services “helps decrease the likelihood that we’ll find them on the streets or caught up with substances, contemplating suicide (or) in the hospital with mental health disorders,” he said.

“When I was in Iraq, I saw firsthand the physical toll of war,” Garcia added, noting that his job as a mortuary specialist involved conducting search and reconnaissance missions for Marines killed overseas. “I, like many veterans, not only had the challenges of bearing the costs of warfare but also the challenges of transitioning back into civilian life. … I believe we as a country and as a state need to be doing all we can to honor the sacrifices of our service members.”

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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