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Military, VA Confront Rising Suicide Rates Among Troops

November 10, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The Army says that suicides among active duty personnel have doubled in recent years, and multiple deployments might contribute to that increase. NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, suicides in the military. NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports for our Health Unit, a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: By most accounts, specialist Scott Eiswert was a happy, outgoing father of three when he was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a driver for the Tennessee Army National Guard.

TRACY EISWERT, Widow of Iraq Veteran: Before he went, oh, my gosh, he was fun, and caring, and giving, and loved people. He was just a big kid.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But during his one year in the war zone, he experienced a lot of stress. There were close calls with roadside bombs. On one occasion, he saw three of his friends blown up.

TRACY EISWERT: I was not prepared for the man that came home. No one told me what to prepare for, what to look for. No one said he would be different. No one said he’d be angry. Nobody told me how different he would be when he got home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Eiswert came home in December of 2005, he was different, radically different.

TRACY EISWERT: He was very angry. One of the girls said, “I want my daddy back.” That hurt him really, really bad. They said, “You’re not my daddy.”

I remember one time when I had went to work, and the girls had called me, and they had locked themselves in their room, they were so afraid of him. He was just screaming; he was always screaming once he got home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And there were constant nightmares.

TRACY EISWERT: About him dying a lot of times. That’s what they were about, were grenades or bombs and roadsides, and people being dead. It was always about people being dead. You know, months before his death, he would tell me, he goes, “I feel like there’s dead people around me all the time.”

Veterans' suicide rates rise

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In May, Eiswert became extremely depressed when a National Guard colleague told him their unit was being sent back to Iraq. A few days after hearing that news, he shot himself to death here in the family home in Greeneville.

The Pentagon knows Eiswert was not an isolated case. The Army, the National Guard, and the Veterans Administration all acknowledge suicide is a growing problems among Iraq and Afghanistan war vets.

The Army says suicides among its active-duty personnel have doubled in recent years, with almost 700 since the year 2000. If current trends continue, suicide will eventually surpass the civilian rate of 19 suicides per 100,000 people.

Other alarming statistics: Attempted suicides and self-injuries have quadrupled over the past six years.

The Army thinks, unlike previous wars, that multiple redeployments may be a factor, along with failed relationships and financial problems. Colonel Elspeth Ritchie is the Army's top psychiatrist.

COL. ELSPETH RITCHIE (M.D.), U.S. Army: Our research supports the more deployments that you have, the higher the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In soldiers who had deployed once, about 12 percent had symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD. If you had deployed three times, that number rose from 12 percent to 27 percent.

So there clearly is an impact of repeat deployments on the mental health of soldiers.

CHAPLAIN (Lt. Col.) WILLIAM RALSTON, U.S. Army: I think of this as first aid. You don't need it until you need it.

Disagreement over root causes

BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the things the Army is doing to help soldiers readjust to home life when they return from a war zone is a program called Battlemind.

WILLIAM RALSTON: When in doubt, think slower. Go slower. Slow down.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Run largely by chaplains like Lieutenant Colonel William Ralston, Battlemind includes a strong suicide prevention message.

WILLIAM RALSTON: Maybe you have some trouble sleeping, or you have a nightmare in the middle of the night, or you're agitated. Give it 90 days. And see if, after 90 days, you haven't made that transition.

If you still have some issues, find some professional help. It's not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of smarts.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Army plans to make Battlemind something every soldier is exposed to. When the troops come home and leave the active-duty ranks, they are eligible for medical care at the Veterans Administration.

The V.A. says the suicide rate among male veterans it serves under the age of 29 hit an all-time high in 2006. Those in that age group are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as people in the general population.

But Dr. James Peake, secretary of the V.A., says so far his data show no correlation between those war experiences and suicide.

DR. JAMES PEAKE, Secretary of Veterans Affairs: It is the same kinds of issues that have to do with suicide in the general population. It is issues of failed relationships, senses of hopelessness, transitions in life, that are at the root cause.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So how much of an element is the war experience?

DR. JAMES PEAKE: Some of the data that we're looking at suggests that those who haven't necessarily deployed, who haven't deployed overseas have a higher rate of suicide than some of those who have deployed. So it's not -- we're not making a direct correlation with combat.

Care often inadequate

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Paul Sullivan, director of the advocacy organization Veterans for Common Sense, disagrees. He worked as a senior data manager at the V.A. for six years. Sullivan's organization sued the V.A., claiming it does not deliver adequate mental health care, but the judge who heard the case ruled his court lacked jurisdiction in the matter.

PAUL SULLIVAN, Veterans for Common Sense: The number-one reason why the servicemembers and veterans coming back from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are completing suicides is because of their involvement in the war, because of the horrors that they have seen in the war, and because of the lack of access to prompt and high-quality mental health care when they return home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Scott Eiswert returned home, there was no Battlemind program, and he had trouble getting an appointment to see a doctor at his local V.A.

TRACY EISWERT: He contacted the V.A. here in Johnson City, and there was some process paperwork he had to go through, bureaucracy of the system, and so I said, "We can't wait for that." I said, "You need to get help now."

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So he went to a private mental health clinic, where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When his private insurance ran out, he went back to the V.A.

TRACY EISWERT: Finally, a buddy of his said, "Just show up at the emergency room. You'll get in a whole lot faster," and so that's what he did.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: V.A. doctors put Eiswert on a long list of medications, but his widow said none of them worked and the counseling he got was inadequate.

TRACY EISWERT: He said he felt belittled because they didn't take what he was saying seriously. "This is what happened to me over there." You know, and they wanted to talk about, "Well, how's your marriage? Or how was your childhood? How was your dad with you?" And he's like, "Well, what's this got to do with why I'm here today?"

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eventually, V.A. doctors also found, like the local mental health clinic, that Eiswert had PTSD and a mood disorder called dysphoria.

Based on that diagnosis, Eiswert three times filed for V.A. disability benefits, which would have given him and his family thousands of dollars to live on while he continued treatment for his PTSD. But the V.A. repeatedly turned him down, saying his PTSD condition was not incurred or aggravated by military service.

In his applications for benefits, Eiswert described seeing his friends blown up by a massive roadside bomb and civilian fatalities, including body parts."

But V.A. examiners said he did not provide enough information, such as dates of these incidents or names of any casualties to show his mental problems were service-related.

TRACY EISWERT: He said he just had faces, the faces of the dead, the blood and the body parts. He goes -- that's what's in his head, not dates and names.

Tragic cases common

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In August, three months after he committed suicide, the V.A. said it now had corroborated evidence that Eiswert's PTSD was the result of his service in Iraq and granted his widow a few thousand dollars in disability benefits.

We asked Dr. Peake about Eiswert's case.

DR. JAMES PEAKE: You know, if you can give me the specific case, I'll be happy to track it down and get back with you about the details. It's possible that we've made an error, but I -- you know...

BETTY ANN BOWSER: One week after that interview, the V.A. said it had made an error and increased Eiswert's disability benefits to about $10,000.

PAUL SULLIVAN: This is a tragic case, but it's happening all across America right now because the V.A. system has become so adversarial and because V.A. is under an enormous burden of demand from hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans filing claims.

They don't have the time and the staff to provide the level of assistance that they should, and that's a national tragedy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Peake says the V.A. is getting better at dealing with the huge influx of veterans with mental problems.

GARY SINISE, Actor: It's a sad fact that some of our warriors, some of our nation's finest citizens are wasting their lives through suicide.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It's launched a new ad campaign, established a suicide hotline, and hired thousands of new mental health workers.

DR. JAMES PEAKE: I think there's no system in this country better prepared than the V.A.

I will tell you that we have been on a glide path up, in terms of dealing with the mental health issues for our veterans. We have hired 4,000 -- in two-and-a-half years, 4,000 new mental health workers. We have about 17,000 folks overall in mental health across the nation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Peake says, based on new recommendations from a blue ribbon panel, he will design a study to identify suicide risks among veterans, increase efforts to screen for suicide risk, and improve efforts to prescribe appropriate medications for suicidal behavior.

And Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently he wants every soldier returning from combat to undergo a psychiatric screening by a trained medical professional.

Meanwhile, Tracy Eiswert now wonders whether husband Scott would still be alive today if the V.A. had given him the proper medical treatment and disability benefits it now says he was entitled to before he took his life.