< 10pt; line-height: 12pt;text-align: left; ">WASHINGTON Jeffrey Freeman was despondent after severe pain from fibromyalgia and an Air Force injury left him unable to work and provide for his family. Then, in November 2012, he thought of a way out: His life insurance policy offered his family financial relief and money for his son’s college education.
But Freeman would have to die first, in his mistaken assumption the insurance company would pay his family after a suicide.
“I saw a big rig coming,” Freeman said in a telephone conversation. “I closed my eyes and stepped in front of the truck.”
The driver swerved, leaving Freeman alive, though blown to the ground by truck’s gust.
Had the driver not acted quickly, Freeman – now 60 and an American Legion area vice commander in Oakdale, Calif. – would have been among the death count in a new report on veterans’ suicides. It shows recent declines in those fatalities, even as the report demonstrates how big the problem remains.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, described the latest suicide data as “positive news,” despite a 2020 suicide rate 57% greater than that of other adults.
Despite the improving data, the 6,146 veterans’ suicides in 2020 equaled a daily average of almost 17, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ annual National Veteran Suicide Prevention report released last month. The number shocks, but it “was lower than each prior year since 2006,” when it was just above 6,000. The daily average was a notable drop from its highest point, 18.6 in 2018.
“It’s clear VA is having real success getting more veterans into care,” Tester added in a press release. “Make no mistake, we have a lot of work to do.”
On that point, suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2020 among vets younger than 45.
The reasons behind suicide are complex. That also applies to increases and decreases in the numbers and rates. A VA statement said recent declines are reflective “of fundamental truths: suicide is preventable; suicide prevention requires a public health approach that includes and moves beyond the individual and pathology into the communal and population.”
Among what the VA calls “anchors of hope” is the major fall in suicides. “From 2001 through 2018, the number of Veteran suicides increased on average by 47 deaths per year,” the report said. “From 2019 to 2020, there were consecutive reductions, of 307 and 343 suicides, respectively, an unprecedented decrease since 2001.”
A separate study, however, contends the VA undercounts suicides.
“Operation Deep Dive,” released last month by the America’s Warrior Partnership, said former service members “take their own lives each year at a rate approximately 2.4 times greater than previously reported by” the VA. Deep Dive “identified a 37% greater suicide rate than reported by VA for years 2014-2018.”
Whichever is correct, “the scope is sobering,” Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, the top Republican on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said at its hearing last week.
“And either way ... both numbers are unfathomable and unacceptable,” Bost said, adding that “unlike [the] AWP study, the VA data does not include deaths by overdoses or certain injuries.”
White veterans died by their own hands at more than twice the rate of Black vets. The 2020 suicide rate was 34.2 among 100,000 white veterans; 30.2 for Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander veterans; 29.8 for American Indians or Alaska Natives; 18.6 for Hispanic Americans; and 14.2 for African American veterans. Male vets died by suicide at more than twice the rate of females.
The prevalence of the use of guns is much worse regarding veterans suicides. “Among U.S. adults who died from suicide in 2020, firearms were more commonly involved among Veterans (71.0%) than non-Veterans (50.3%),” according to the report.
Christine Yu Moutier, a psychiatrist and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s chief medical officer, said research indicates that contrary to most assumptions, combat and deployments are not the driving factors behind veterans’ suicides. Unaddressed mental health conditions and barriers to mental health treatment, she said, are “much more strong and potent risk factors for suicidal behavior.”
Those factors can have an outsized influence in certain occupations infused with “macho culture,” she explained, including the military and law enforcement.