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22 veterans commit suicide each day: VA report

An estimated 22 veterans committed suicide in America each day in 2010, according to a report released Friday by the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.

That rate has edged higher from 1999 when an estimated 20 veterans took their lives every day, the report noted. In 2007, the veteran suicide pace temporarily dipped to 18 per day. 

Nearly 70 percent of all veteran suicides were among men and women aged 50 or older, the VA said.

"The mental health and well-being of our courageous men and women who have served the nation is the highest priority for VA, and even one suicide is one too many,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in a news release. “We have more work to do and we will use this data to continue to strengthen our suicide prevention efforts and ensure all Veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve.”

The report notes that while the numbers of veterans who die by suicide each day "has remained relatively stable over the past 12 years," the overall percentage of people who die by suicide in America who are veterans has decreased slightly. The share of all suicides reported as "veterans" on state-issued death certificates was 25 percent in 1999 versus slightly more than 20 percent in 2010, according to VA researchers. 

"This provides preliminary evidence that the programs initiated by VA are improving outcomes," read an accompanying "executive summary" signed by Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the VA's under secretary for health. "As long as veterans die by suicide, we must continue to improve and provide even better services and care."

Also Friday, the U.S. Army released its monthly suicide report, offering a preliminary tally for 2012 in that branch: 325 "potential" suicides among active and reserve troops — the highest number in history, Army officials noted. More than 50 of those deaths remain "under investigation," awaiting a final ruling. If that bleak total remains at 325, the toll in 2012 would have risen by 15 percent over 2011 when the Army sustained 283 suicides. 

Meanwhile, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group representing more than 200,000 members, said the nation should be "outraged" by rate of veterans who are taking their own lives — nearly one per hour. 

“This VA suicide report is the most important piece of data to be released since 2007,” said IAVA founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff. “Our leaders in Washington need to accelerate efforts to shrink wait times for mental health care and find more creative solutions like the Veteran Crisis Line" — 800-273-TALK. 

"The country should be outraged that we are allowing this tragedy to continue The trends are headed in the wrong direction,” Rieckhoff added. “As veterans, we at IAVA understand the spectrum of challenges facing veterans transitioning home, including the struggle with invisible wounds. One thing is clear, we need more research and more collaboration.”

VA leaders vowed "immediate actions" to curb the suicide rate among former service members. The top strategy on the agency's list: A task force — already established — that will "provide recommendations for innovating mental health care" within the VA system," VA officials said. 

That panel also has been tasked with "reassessing the value of traditional suicide risk assessments at screening" and "adding ways to identify life stressors and concerns earlier," read Petzel's summary. 

Friday's report also identified female veterans and Vietnam-era veterans as two demographic groups that require extra urgency when it comes to suicidal behaviors. VA officials said they will be developing "additional training programs" to help better target those segments of the U.S. veteran population. 

The veteran-suicide statistics are likely to become a topic on Feb. 13 when the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs holds a hearing to explore whether veterans are "overcoming barriers to quality mental health care."