“More suicides per month in the U.S. military, returning vets, than people killed in action, by a long shot.”
— Former vice president Joe Biden, at a town hall event at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., Aug. 23, 2019
The Washington Post recently detailed how the former vice president told a moving but false story about an incident in Afghanistan. While watching a clip of the lengthy monologue that led to this tale, we were struck by his claim that there are more suicides per month of returning veterans than those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan — “by a long shot.”
This seemed an interesting subject for a fact check, though it turned out the data is sketchy and not especially clear. There’s also an added wrinkle — what did Biden, who is not especially precise in his phrasing, mean with his comment?
When we first watched this clip, we assumed that Biden was comparing the number of military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of the two wars — nearly 5,400 — with the number of veterans of those conflicts who have taken their own lives.
Before he made this statement, Biden said: “Every year for the last 13 years I have wanted to know I call every morning to the Defense Department, not a joke, to learn exactly how many women and men have been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Every single one of them is a fallen angel left behind an entire community. … It’s 6,883, as of this morning.” (There are different ways to crunch the numbers, but it’s about 7,000, including deaths not in combat.)
Biden continued: “Know how many are coming back with post-traumatic stress? 300,000. 300,000 estimated.” (He appears to be referring to a 2008 Rand Corp. study that said 20 percent of military service members, or 300,000 at the time, report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — PTSD — or major depression.)
Then Biden said: “To deal with the VA [Veterans Affairs] and fund it, which this guy is not doing very well about it. You know, more suicides per month in the United States military, returning vets, than people killed in action by a long shot. Because they can’t get help.”
So, it’s possible Biden was referring to the past five or so years, when total deaths in the conflicts, not just those killed in action, has ranged from 27 to 37 a year, even as the number of suicides of veterans has continued to climb. So we will evaluate his claim under both metrics.
First, how many veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have died by suicide? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.
Tracking of military and veteran suicides began in earnest in the mid-2000s, after officials perceived a sharp increase in suicides among military personnel.
Before then, the suicide mortality rate for members of the U.S. armed services was historically lower than the rate for the total U.S. population, when adjusted for gender, age and race, according to a 2019 report in Military Medicine. (Men, for instance, die by suicide at higher rates than women and are disproportionately represented in the armed forces.)
The Biden campaign pointed to the most recent Veterans Affairs report, dated 2016, but unfortunately it does not distinguish between veterans who served in various conflicts. It just breaks down the numbers by age. One could look at the age range of 18 to 34 as a reasonable proxy for military personnel deployed overseas, but it’s obviously not very precise. (Most veteran suicides are by those above age 55, but suicide rates are highest for veterans ages 18 to 34.)
A 2014 report in the Annals of Epidemiology, led by Veterans Affairs staffers, closely studied 1.3 million veterans who were on active duty during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of which about 320,000 were deployed in the theaters. So this was a subset of the 4.1 million people who served in the military from 2001 to 2007.
Interestingly, the study found that the suicide rate was higher among non-deployed veterans than among deployed veterans, though overall, the risk of suicide among recent wartime veterans was significantly higher (41 percent for deployed veterans and 61 percent for non-deployed veterans) than that of the general population in the United States. Moreover, multiple deployments were not associated with the excess suicide risk among deployed veterans.
There were 351 suicides among the deployed veterans, for a suicide rate of 27.9 per 100,000 people per year. The risk of suicide seemed highest three years after departure from the service, the study said. But we can’t with confidence apply these numbers to figure out how many suicides could be attributed to veterans who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in that period.
Drilling into the VA data, found in the appendix, we find that at the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were several years when the suicides by veterans, ages 18 to 34, were significantly lower than the number killed in action, especially 2006 and 2007.
Overall, we find there were a total of 5,397 military personnel killed in action from 2001 to 2019, according to Defense Department data, compared with 7,819 veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 who died by suicide between 2005 and 2016. (VA’s numbers only go back to 2015.)
But, as we noted, we are unsure how many were deployed to war zones (or how many in older age groups were deployed). It’s certainly hard to confirm Biden’s claim that the suicides per month exceed KIAs “by a long shot,” given how many veterans who killed themselves may not have been deployed. The claim appears not to be true at the height of the conflicts.
Still, the VA data show a depressing tale of increasing suicide rates in the 18 to 34 cohort. In 2005, 544 veterans ages 18 to 34 took their own lives, for a rate of 25.2 per 100,000. In 2016, 893 in that age range died by suicide, for a rate of 45 per 100,000. The suicide rate for nonveterans in that period also went up, from 12.7 in the 18-34 age range in 2005 to 15.3 in 2016, but the rate of increase was much less.
That brings us to the more-generous interpretation of Biden’s remarks. If he was indeed framing it in the current period, when relatively few soldiers are serving and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a strong case for “a long shot.” In 2016, 37 military personnel died in Iraq and Afghanistan, or three per month, compared with 893 veteran suicides between the ages of 18 to 34, or 74 a month.
“Vice President Biden was highlighting the urgent need to end the tragic epidemic of suicide among veterans and service members,” Michael Gwin, the Biden campaign’s deputy rapid-response director, said in a statement. “As a country, we honor their service and sacrifice, and we owe it to those who have given so much to provide the support they deserve. As President, Joe Biden would build on the work of the Obama-Biden Administration to support veterans by continuing to reform the VA and ensure that everyone who has served our country in uniform has access to quality health care — including treatment for PTSD, substance use disorders, and other behavioral health issues.”
The Pinocchio Test
Given the fuzziness of the data, and the imprecision in Biden’s remarks, we are going to leave this unrated. We will update this fact check if we obtain more-precise data, but at the moment, we cannot confirm with available data that, “by a long shot,” more veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have died by their own hands than were killed in action. In fact, the 2014 study suggests serving in an Iraq or Afghanistan battle theater might result in a lower suicide risk.
But it is clear that the rate of younger veterans committing suicide has increased substantially, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down and deaths in the field have dropped dramatically. (Readers are invited to offer their own rating below.)
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