Since 2002, there have been three major shootings involving U.S. Veterans. In 2002, Robert S. Flores, a 41-year-old Persian Gulf vet opened fire during an exam at University of Arizona. In 2012, Wade Michael Page—a former “psychological operations specialist” who did not serve time overseas and was apparently affiliated with white supremacy groups—killed six worshippers at Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and wounded three others. And, in 2013, a former Navy Electrician’s Mate killed 12 at the Washington Navy Yard.
After Thursday's tragedy in Dallas, where a sniper opened fire during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest and killed 5 police officers, we can add a fourth person to that list: Micah Xavier Johnson, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and was serving in the U.S. Army Reserves. Johnson was killed by police after an hours-long standoff.
With these instances, alongside endemic veteran suicide and homelessness, we have to wonder: Are we doing enough for our veterans? An assortment of recently released data suggests that we are not.
The Department of Veterans Affairs released new, extensive findings regarding rates of suicide amongst veterans just yesterday. The report was much more inclusive than previous findings, which were based on only 3 million death records, from only 20 states (not including the four most populous). They also relied on self-reporting of veteran status. This new research, however, depends on death records from 55 million veterans, ranging from 1979 to 2014. These findings show, among other things, that suicide rates among veterans have risen 35 percent since 2001, in part due to larger numbers serving.
Are we doing enough for our veterans? An assortment of recently released data suggests that we are not.
The report also showed that veterans aged 18 to 29 were the hardest hit, with 89 deaths per 100,000 for men and 33 deaths per 100,000 women. That is almost double the rates for all other age groups. By contrast, civilian suicide rates occur at an average of 14 per 100,000.
Though female veterans commit suicide less frequently than their male colleagues, they still do so at a rate of 6 times that of female civilians. According to The New York Times, “The agency’s suicide prevention experts have suggested that the higher rate is partly because female veterans, who gained familiarity with firearms during service, use guns much more often in suicide attempts than civilian women.”
In response to these female veteran suicide numbers, Democratic Representative Julia Brownley of California has sponsored H.R.2915: the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act. If passed, the bill will direct the VA to identify the mental health and suicide prevention programs that are most effective for women veterans and have the highest satisfaction rates for women veterans, among other things. The bill was introduced last June and has passed the House; it is currently waiting to pass through the Senate.
Additionally, the rise in suicide rates among army veterans can be linked to a 23 percent rise in civilian suicide rates since 2001. Connections between suicide deaths and combat experience is not yet available, but will be when the final report is released at the end of the month.
Suicide is not the only issue plaguing our veteran population. In January of 2014, communities across America identified almost 50,000 homeless veterans. That number represents a staggering 8.9 percent of the known homeless population. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 91 percent of homeless veterans are male, 98 percent are single, 76 percent live in a city, and 54 percent have a mental and/or physical disability. Black veterans are overrepresented, making up 39 percent of homeless veterans, but only 11 percent of the overall veteran population. “As troops return from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the face of veteran homelessness has changed," the National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded. "Homeless veterans are increasingly younger, female, and heads of households. Despite this, homeless veterans are still most likely to be males between the ages of 51 and 61 (43 percent) and to have served in the Vietnam War. And, in the next 10 to 15 years, it is projected that the number of homeless veterans over the age of 55 could increase drastically.”
The University of Salt Lake City also released research earlier this year showing that veterans who experienced sexual trauma during their service—25 percent of female veterans and 1 percent of male veterans—were associated with a much higher risk of homelessness.
These statistics, coupled with the House Appropriations Subcommittee cutting more than $1.4 Billion from the President’s requested budget for the 2016 Veterans Affairs Bill, lead to troubling circumstances for American vets. $690 million was slashed from VA medical care in the bill; combined with overall medical care services being cut, that puts an estimated 70,000 fewer veterans without medical care.
American veterans, especially those who serve overseas, often return to civilian life with difficulties reintegrating into society, suffering from health issues as a direct result of their experiences in the military. With many of those veterans being left without healthcare or other forms of support, we can only be left to ask: If some of the veterans who committed terrible acts of violence after service were given more support, would these tragedies have happened?