Veteran Suicides Increasing Over Time

Nam Wall

A new analysis of veteran suicides in California shows older veterans continue to be more at risk than civilians, even decades after their combat experience is over.By Alison St John at KPBS

The “Bay Citizen,” a web news outlet, analyzed suicides by County in California between 2005 and 2008, and found veterans are killing themselves at a rate more than twice civilians with no military service. The numbers don’t get any better over time, in fact they get worse as veterans get older.

Dawn Miller is a suicide prevention coordinator at the VA Hospital in San Diego. She got the job two years ago, one of thousands of new mental health professionals hired by the VA nationwide. Her case load, which she shares with two other suicide prevention specialists, is 150 and growing fast.

“The younger veterans are definitely at risk for harming themselves,” Miller said, sitting in her tiny office. “But what we’ve noticed over the past fiscal year is that the older population has been more successful at taking their lives.”

Wayne Savell is 55, a modest, self effacing man who served in the Navy for 17 years. His father and his uncles served in Korea and he still wears his uncle’s dog tag to remind himself of his proud military heritage. He’s been out of the Navy for nearly a decade, but earlier this year he tried to commit suicide.

Above: Wayne Savell examines his uncle’s dog tag that he wears to remind himself of his family’s proud military background – [Photo by Alison St John]

“After the Persian Gulf war,” he said, “I started having hellacious night terrors. Not night mares but night terrors, where you continue to have the fearful feeling after you’re awake and if you fall back asleep you continue with the nightmare. During the war, I kept my head about me, but afterward, fear deferred is what I believe it was.”

For years, Savell self medicated with alcohol. He managed to break that habit and tried anti-anxiety medication — but nothing in his life worked out. With his job as a nurse and his marriage on the rocks, he said suicide increasingly encroaches on his thoughts.

“I see that as an option,” he said, “and sometimes that moves to the top of the list.”

I asked him what goes through his mind when suicide moves to the top of the list.

“That I think it would provide relief,” he replied .“I’m tired.”

Savell is now in therapy at the non-profit Veterans Village of San Diego. He’s working to better understand the inner demons that have plagued him since the war. He said he wants to work, and his voice lightens up when he speaks about caring for other veterans. But many in his generation were not so lucky. The VA’s Dawn Miller said of 33 veterans who committed suicide in the region last year, 27 were over 50. She said she hears Savell’s story a lot.

“I think it’s probably just a lifetime of what’s been going on for them.” she said, “I think that finally they’ve just reached the end.”

Miller said many of the older veterans who took their own lives shot themselves, a method that is more foolproof than overdosing or having a vehicle crash.

She admitted the VA’s figures on suicides only include veterans who signed up for care with the VA. She said those who didn’t, wouldn’t be in their computer records. But fewer than half of returning veterans sign on for medical assistance from the VA.

Bill Rider runs “American Combat Veterans of War.” He counsels returning veterans and said the ones who don’t come for help at the VA are often the ones who need it most.

Above: Bill Rider of American Combat Veterans of War says the largest demographic now coming to the VA for help are Vietnam-era veterans -[Photo by Alison St John]

Rider said the largest demographic coming to the VA now is the Vietnam-era veteran. He said more Vietnam vets have committed suicide than died in the war, and 60,000 were killed in the war. Rider believes suicide statistics have always underestimated the number of veterans who take their own lives. In many cases, Rider said, motorcycle or car accidents are actually part of the aftermath of war.

“If they committed suicide by pistol or overdose,” he explained, “the insurance doesn’t pay off. But if they have a crash where it’s nebulous how they got there, then the insurance company has to pay it off. These Marines figure that out, because they want to keep their families somewhat taken care of.”

The statistics compiled by the Bay Citizen from Health Department figures, show veterans under 35 are five times more likely to die in a motorcycle crash than civilians with no military service. And they are twice as likely to die in a motor vehicle accident.

Speaking in San Diego at the recent groundbreaking of a new Navy Hospital, the Navy Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, said the aftermath of the current war will go on for decades.

“If the war’s over in 2015 or 2016 – in 2018, we have forgotten. We cannot forget.” Robinson said, “In 2038 there will be young men and women, who are young today, who are middle aged, who will still have issue that they will need to be seen and treated for. Those individuals must be cared for, long after this war is over.”

Bill Rider has a saying that he has had printed on the back of his business card — ‘When the war ends, the battle begins.’

There are more veterans in San Diego than in any other California county except LA, facing that battle.


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