VA, Defense officials grilled on allegations of ‘epidemic’ of soldier suicides

Top officials of the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments faced harsh questioning from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday about recently leaked e-mails written by the VA's head of mental health revealing that nearly 1,000 U.S. soldiers per month have attempted suicide after returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I am very angry and upset that we find out this week [about] several internal VA e-mails that were made public not because you wanted them to, but because a lawsuit that was occurring showed that the VA downplayed vastly the number of suicides and suicide attempts by veterans in the last several years," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

On Monday, groups representing veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts filed a class-action lawsuit in San Francisco charging in part that the VA's head of mental health, Dr. Ira Katz, covered up an "epidemic of suicides." Last November, Katz told CBS News that 790 soldiers attempted suicide in 2007. But in an internal e-mail he later said "our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities."

"Inside the VA, everyone knew it was higher" than Katz's original estimate, said Murray to VA Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield at the hearing. "How do we trust what you are saying when every time we turn around we find out that what you're saying publicly is different than what you know privately?"

"Sen. Murray, I apologize for the fact that I have to apologize again," said Mansfield. "I think it's unfortunate, and I agree that the characterization, the way that e-mail was written does not bode well and sends the wrong message."

Last week, the RAND Corp. reported that up to 300,000 returning U.S. soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and 320,000 have suffered traumatic brain injury. Only half of returning veterans have sought treatment and only a quarter "received treatment that could be classified as even minimally adequate," said Murray.

"I know what happens to our soldiers," added Murray, who said she worked on a psychiatric ward during the Vietnam War. "And I know that if we as a country deny that something has happened to them, they are walking time bombs for decades."

Citing a recent Associated Press article, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked why suicides among National Guard members were higher than in the active-duty military. Mansfield suggested that active-duty soldiers likely had the ongoing help of support groups while guardsmen did not after being released from active status.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, pressed Defense and VA witnesses to provide an accurate suicide rate for military service members. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England said that the Army's suicide rate was higher than other military services before passing the question to Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S. C. Chu.

"I think the good news is that on an age-adjusted basis, department suicide rates as a whole tend to be a bit below the national norm," said Chu. "And even with the Army's increase it puts it at approximately the national level."

"Are we facing a suicide epidemic?" asked Akaka.

"I'm not the expert on numbers or on the medical or mental health care," said Mansfield. "But looking at the numbers that [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports, suicide happens to be the second- or third-largest cause of death in the population in [people] 15 to 24 years old, many of whom are the ones we recruit in the armed forces. So there is an issue in that area, but I don't know if I'd call it an epidemic."

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