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More action urged on veteran suicides

December 13, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The parents of an Iraq war veteran who committed suicide and members of Congress on Wednesday questioned why there was not a comprehensive tracking system of suicide among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

Mike Bowman of Forreston, Ill., said his son, Spc. Timothy Bowman, 23, was a member of the "unknown fallen" not counted in statistics. His son, a member of the Illinois National Guard, took his own life in 2005 eight months after returning from the war. Bowman said he considered his son a "KBA" -- killed because of action.

"If the veteran suicide rate is not classified as an epidemic that needs immediate and drastic attention, then the American fighting soldier needs someone in Washington who thinks it is," Bowman said.

Bowman was one of several witnesses who testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the issue.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), the committee chairman, questioned why the comprehensive tracking wasn't already being done.

"They don't want to know this, it looks to me," Filner said. "This could be tracked."

Dr. Ira Katz, the deputy chief patient care service officer for mental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, defended the work being done by his agency to tackle the issue, including a suicide prevention hotline.

"We have a major suicide prevention program, the most comprehensive in the nation," Katz said. He questioned why Filner was focusing on the number of suicides instead of looking at treatment programs started to help prevent suicide.

Awareness of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans was heightened this year when the Army said its suicide rate in 2006 rose to 17.3 per 100,000 troops -- the highest level in 26 years of record-keeping.

The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who commit suicide, but only if they had been discharged from the military.

The Pentagon tracks the number of suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Pentagon spokeswoman earlier told the Associated Press that the military did not keep track of whether active-duty troops who took their own lives served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In an e-mail Wednesday, the same spokeswoman, Cynthia Smith, said, "We track all suicides; I just don't have combat service information readily available."

At least 152 troops have committed suicide in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center, which tracks casualties for the Pentagon.

On Oct. 31, the Associated Press reported that preliminary research from the Department of Veterans Affairs had found that from the start of the war in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, and the end of 2005, 283 troops who served in the wars who had been discharged from the military had committed suicide.

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