More than half of all veterans who took their own lives after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan were members of the National Guard or Reserve, according to new government data that prompted activists yesterday to call for a closer examination of the problem.
A Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) analysis of ongoing research of deaths among veterans of both wars found that Guard or Reserve members accounted for 53 percent of the veteran suicides from 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began, through the end of 2005.
The research, conducted by the department’s Office of Environmental Epidemiology, provides the first demographic look at suicides among veterans from those wars who left the military.
Joe Davis, public affairs director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the Pentagon and VA must combine efforts to track suicides among those who have served in those countries in order to get a clearer picture of the problem.
“To fix a problem, you have to define it first,” Mr. Davis said.
At certain times in 2005, members of the Guard and Reserve constituted nearly half the troops fighting in Iraq. Overall, they were nearly 28 percent of all U.S. military forces deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or in support of the operations, according to Defense Department data through the end of 2007.
Many Guard members and reservists have done multiple tours that kept them from home for 18 months, and that is taking a toll, Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said yesterday.
“Until this administration understands that repeated and prolonged deployments are stretching our brave men and women to the brink, we will continue to see these tragic figures,” she said.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the military’s effort to re-screen Guard members and reservists for mental and physical problems three months after they return home is a positive step, but a long-term, comprehensive approach is needed to help them.
“National Guardsman and reservists are literally in Baghdad in one week and in Brooklyn the next, and that transition is incredibly tough,” Mr. Rieckhoff said.
The VA said there does not appear to be an epidemic of suicide among returning veterans, and that suicide among the newer veterans is comparable to the same demographic group in the general population. However, an escalating suicide rate in the Army as well as high-profile suicides have alarmed some members of Congress and advocates.
According to the VA’s research, 144 veterans committed suicide from the start of the war in Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2001, through the end of 2005. Of those, 35 veterans, or 24 percent, served in the reserves and 41, or 29 percent, served in the National Guard. Sixty-eight — or 47 percent — were in the regular military.