updated 1/11/2010 5:17:22 PM ET 2010-01-11T22:17:22

The suicide rate among 18- to 29-year-old men who've left the military has gone up significantly, the government said Monday.

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The rate for these veterans went up 26 percent from 2005 to 2007, according to preliminary data from the Veterans Affairs Department. VA officials said they assume that most of the veterans in this age group served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

If there is a bright spot in the data, it's that in 2007 veterans in the group who used VA health care were less likely to commit suicide than those who did not. That's a change from 2005.

In recent years, the VA has hired thousands of new mental health professionals and established a suicide hot line credited with "rescues" of nearly 6,000 veterans and military members in distress.

The military has also struggled with an increase in suicides, with the Army seeing a record number last year. While the military frequently releases such data, it has been more difficult to track suicide information on veterans once they've left active duty.

The VA calculated the numbers using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers from 16 states. In 2005, the rate per 100,000 veterans among men ages 18-29 was 44.99, compared with 56.77 in 2007, the VA said. It did not release data for other population groups.

At a suicide prevention conference on Monday in Washington, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said his agency needs to do a better job understanding what led to each suicide. He said he'd also like to see more stringent protocol put into place at VA facilities about how to handle a potentially suicidal veteran, similar to what's done with someone who's having a heart attack.

He noted that of the more than 30,000 suicides each year in America, about 20 percent are committed by veterans.

"Why do we know so much about suicides but still know so little about how to prevent them?" Shinseki said. "Simple question, but we continue to be challenged."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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