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Thursday, November 15, 2007

When is an Epidemic not an Epidemic?

The TimesOnline gets right to the lead:

More American military veterans have been committing suicide than US soldiers have been dying in Iraq, it was claimed yesterday.

What TimesOnline is relaying is a CBS News story on what's finally being labeled a "suicide epidemic" among veterans. While the rate for all vets is higher than the rest of the population, one group stood out.

...Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror. They had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age. (The suicide rate for non-veterans is 8.3 per 100,000, while the rate for veterans was found to be between 22.9 and 31.9 per 100,000.)

"Wow! Those are devastating," said Paul Sullivan, a former VA analyst who is now an advocate for veterans rights from the group Veterans For Common Sense.

Contrast that with the comment by Dr. Ira Katz, mental health head at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Katz told CBS, "There is no epidemic in suicide in the VA, but suicide is a major problem."

Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Paul Rieckhoff has written about the problem of suicides among vets for some time. In August, he wrote for, "Our troops are facing serious mental health problems, and they aren't getting the treatment they need. At least one-in-three Iraq veterans and one-in-nine Afghanistan veterans will face a mental health issue like depression, anxiety, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. About 25 percent of those who committed suicide had 'a history of at least one psychiatric disorder.'"

The VA is notorious for ignoring problems that are a result of war. Between 1962 and 1971, troops in Vietnam were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. When these vets started developing health problems, the VA and the government ignored them. They were "crazy Vietnam vets." Never mind that Agent Orange contained a form of dioxin -- the most toxic compound on Earth -- it wasn't until the 1980s that the VA started taking vets exposed to it seriously. Most think they're still not doing enough.

When veterans of the first Gulf war started reporting their own problems, the phenomenon was given a name -- Gulf War Syndrome. These vets were told that their disease didn't exist, despite being exposed to depleted uranium (in civilian life known as "nuclear waste") on an almost daily basis.

So it's not extremely surprising to find the VA dragging its feet and denying that an epidemic of suicides represents a suicide epidemic. Like Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome before it, the military's suicide problem is a problem that will eventually just go away. That's the advantage of being an institution -- you can always win the waiting game. The Veterans' Administration will still be around long after all these vets are gone. That's one way to "solve" these sort of problems. If you ignore them, they literally go away. You just have to outlive the veterans.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, sent the following statement to CBS, in response to their story:

The report that the rate of suicide among veterans is double that of the general population is deeply troubling and simply unacceptable. I am especially concerned that so many young veterans appear to be taking their own lives. For too many veterans, returning home from battle does not bring an end to conflict. There is no question that action is needed.

The question isn't whether action is needed -- that it is is pretty much unquestionable. The question is whether action will happen. Given the VA's history with these sort of issues, I'm pretty confident in saying that nothing will happen without a swift kick in someone's ass.

But the real question is what is the occupation of Iraq worth? It doesn't really serve any purpose at this point -- other than making sure some future president "loses the war" after Bush is gone. This problem will continue long into our future and, the longer we do this, the larger the problem becomes. Is "winning the war" for the sake of winning a war worth it? Because that's the only thing this war is about anymore -- and that's being a cockeyed optimist about it.

The Congress is playing games with Bush again, passing legislation in the House to impose a timetable on the war. Bush will veto it -- if it gets that far. The Senate isn't expected to pass it. Clearly, the only way to end this war is to defund it. Screwing around with legislation that's not going to go anywhere is pointless.

Meanwhile, the war goes on -- pointlessly and stupidly and in no one's interest other than Bush's. Meanwhile, 2.4 Americans a day die in combat. Meanwhile, 17 veterans a day commit suicide. Meanwhile, Iraqis are killed every day and the middle east becomes more and more destabilized, making us less safe and more hated in the world. Meanwhile, we accomplish nothing. Not anything good, anyway.

It's just not worth it.


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