Guest Columnist

Veteran suicide is a growing but under-researched issue

Veterans march game ball for the Iowa vs. Minnesota football match up on Saturday, November 14th while raising awareness for suicide amongst veterans.  On Friday, the vets were in Center Point on their way to Hiawatha.
Veterans march game ball for the Iowa vs. Minnesota football match up on Saturday, November 14th while raising awareness for suicide amongst veterans. On Friday, the vets were in Center Point on their way to Hiawatha.

Seventeen veterans will die by suicide today, seventeen veterans will commit suicide tomorrow, and another seventeen the next day, and the day after that. Six thousand, one hundred thirty-nine veterans committed suicide in 2017 — that’s 129 more veterans than in 2016. And a majority of those veterans died by gunshot: recent data has shown that personal firearms are involved in over 70 percent of veteran suicides.

This issue is also one that is affecting our active duty and guard members. In 2017, 51.2 percent of active duty who committed suicide had made contact with the Military Health System in the 90 days before their death, and a little over half of those active duty and guard members who died by suicide did not have a documented behavioral health diagnosis. If we’re not able to effectively help those during their time in the military, it’s no surprise we’re struggling with the issue of suicide when they separate from active duty.

As a veteran of the U.S. Army Medical Corps and as a medical professional, I find this data gut-wrenching — and the veteran community does, too. We do not want to lose another brother or sister who has served in the military to suicide. They are animated over this issue but continue to be frustrated by the dearth of research on its root causes. We wonder why we outfit our service members with all the protective equipment necessary when they serve but fail to provide the same care when they return home.

We’ve seen the numbers. It’s a problem. What’s being done about it?

I ran for federal office in 2016 and 2018 because I was tired of business as usual in Washington. On the campaign trail, I heard stories from veterans and their families who lost loved ones by the hands of this epidemic. They felt the spike in suicide rates. They didn’t need to read articles about it: they experienced it.

In 2017, Iowans lost 66 veterans to suicide (an increase from the previous year). Seventy percent of them used a firearm as their method of suicide. Our state’s Veteran suicide rate in 2017 was higher than the national average. When compared to the overall population suicide rates, Iowa’s Veteran suicide rate is over 50% higher than the general populations statewide, Midwestern region and national suicide rates in 2017. Shockingly, when focusing on the 18-34 age group, the gap was even larger. I am concerned that these statistics may show that the issue disproportionately affects Iowa, which has a large veteran community.

So, what is Congress doing about this growing problem?

Currently, both parties have introduced legislation, and have, at the very least, begun discussions to fund research on firearm-related veteran suicides. The lower house allocated $50 million toward research, while the upper house is sitting on Sen. Johnny Isakson’s proposed $75 million spending bill to supplement existing research funds. The additional funds would cover the cost of the resources needed to undergo a serious examination of this crisis.

Iowans are fortunate to have elected representatives who understand the needs of our veterans and realize that suicide prevention is an important issue for our community. Our public officials see the importance of funding data-driven research to uncover the underlying causes of firearm-related veteran suicides. I trust that Sens. Joni Ernst and and Chuck Grassley, who have been longtime advocates of the veteran community, will lead the way in ensuring research is well-funded.

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We must deliver the needed solutions to a hidden epidemic, one that transcends politics and partisanship. Firearm-related veteran suicides are not a liberal or conservative issue, it’s an American issue, and if our representatives are able to discover solutions to prevent these suicides, lives will be saved.

Christopher Peters is a veteran, a former candidate for Congress and a practicing physician in Iowa City.

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