Suicides down for active-duty troops. What about veterans?

A new Pentagon report shows that suicides among active-duty troops declined by 15 percent last year, offering hope that the military’s suicide-prevention programs may be working.

But at least one veterans group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says a similar focus on prevention is needed to lower the rate among former service members. An estimated 22 veterans killed themselves each day in 2010, compared with 18 per day in 2007, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Veterans Affairs.


Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a doctor in the Office of the Army Surgeon General, discusses suicide among American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP).

The IAVA said troops can struggle more as they transition into the civilian world and away from the military’s suicide-prevention programs. The group is advocating for a more robust network of care to assist service members throughout their lives.

“The Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the White House and the entire nation need to strengthen our efforts to support our military community in this effort,” IAVA chief executive Paul Rieckhoff said in a statement. “Our service members and veterans fought for our nation, and now is the time for us to fight for them.”

The VA has taken steps in recent years to address the suicide epidemic among veterans, including setting up a toll-free crisis hotline, placing suicide-prevention specialists in all of the agency’s 151 medical centers and integrating mental health services with primary care. The suicide rate among veterans who use the VA health system has not risen like it has for veterans overall, according to the agency’s numbers. VA officials take that as a sign that the department’s suicide-prevention programs are making an impact.

“We have made strong progress, but we must do more,” the VA said in a statement on Friday. “Every veteran suicide is a tragic outcome, and regardless of numbers or rates, even one veteran suicide is too many.”

The Pentagon report Friday also showed that suicides among reservists and National Guard troops actually increased by 8 percent last year. Overall, 289 active-duty troops committed suicide last year, compared with 343 in 2012. Among reservists and National Guard personnel, the number rose from 140 to 152 over the same period.

The American Legion said Friday that the Defense Department and VA need more proactive programs to address suicide risks before current and former troops reach the crisis stage. The group called for better risk-recognition and intervention strategies, such as targeted outreach for high-risk veterans and education to help families identify the signs of a suicidal service member.

“It’s not the ones calling the military crisis line, who are currently being treated or flagged for suicide ideation, that we are worried about, but the ones who fall through the cracks,” said Legion official John Stovall. “We as friends and neighbors have to do a better job identifying those in distress.”

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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