Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, roughly twice as many Texas Army National Guard soldiers have died of suicide as in combat, an American-Statesman investigation has found.
Records on the Guard soldiers’ cause of death also identified vehicle crashes as their top killer, claiming the lives of 54 since 2001, or 32 percent of all fatalities among Texas National Guard soldiers . Four Texas National Guard soldiers died of drug overdoses over that time.
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Perilous bureaucratic gap
The investigation into Spc. Cory Brown’s suicide reveals the sometimes dysfunctional relationship between two Cabinet-level agencies — the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs — that have repeatedly pledged closer cooperation to care for service members as they leave active duty.
While Brown’s supervisors knew from Brown and his mother that he was receiving VA treatment, VA officials never alerted Brown’s National Guard commanders about his situation, which had grown increasingly grave.
And when the National Guard officer investigating the suicide contacted the VA to learn what treatment Brown had been receiving, he was rebuffed. A VA privacy official told the investigating officer the VA was under “no obligation to release any records” and “became irritated and wanted to know how I knew the soldier was receiving treatment,” wrote Lt. Charles Smith of the Texas National Guard.
Lack of communication between the VA and the Defense Department has been an all-too-frequent complaint of critics during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The two mammoth departments recently announced they are abandoning an effort to merge medical records because they are unable to overcome technical challenges. Instead, they will create a more limited joint record system available only at select medical facilities.
Veterans advocates say merged medical records would have helped service members from dropping out of the system when they leave the military. For National Guard soldiers like Brown, such merged records could have sparked the kind of intensive treatment his investigating officer called for after his death.
Care comes, and goes
Last year, the Texas Army National Guard began tracking suicide attempts, and it now mobilizes trauma teams of local mental health professionals to units whose members report experiencing mental health issues.
While the National Guard has been lauded for taking a more proactive approach to its soldiers’ mental health issues, officials say that once the trauma team disbands, Guard soldiers seeking to continue receiving mental health care from local authorities have trouble doing so because of eligibility questions and long wait times.
After the initial surge of mental health help, “there often is a gap in follow-on care at (local mental health agency) facilities,” a January report of the Texas Senate Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee found.
According to state officials, National Guard soldiers can find themselves shut out by some community providers because they aren’t officially veterans: They have left active duty, but they have not been discharged and thus lack documentation needed to qualify for some veterans programs.
State, federal directives
The Texas National Guard serves two masters, Washington, D.C., and Austin, and its funding comes from a mix of federal and state money.
While the National Guard falls under the Defense Department, military officials give states wide latitude in designing important programs like suicide prevention, said Master Sgt. Marshall Bradshaw, manager of the U.S. Army National Guard’s suicide prevention program.
“Every state has the autonomy to look at its own needs and demographics,” he said. “The Army has a well-developed suicide prevention program, and all the states implement that, but beyond that there are initiatives that come from the states. They are very resourceful.”
The Army’s suicide prevention strategy has evolved to focus on building resiliency in soldiers before they face the myriad stressors that have been found to trigger military suicides.
States have created additional programs: While Texas has emphasized peer-to-peer support and mobilization of local mental health authorities for defined periods of time, California has begun to embed behavioral health specialists with individual units, a model that has been used at active-duty Army installations like Fort Hood.
The Army National Guard also uses Armywide screening tools to identify soldiers struggling with mental health conditions.
One diagnostic tool aimed at identifying soldiers with depression, the 15-year-old PHQ-9, has come under fire from the makers of a newscreening test, called the CAT-DI, which they say is more effective, and, because it is computer-based, can be more convenient for soldiers and veterans in rural areas. While Texas National Guard officials have been presented with the new test, they say any decision to implement it must come from the Defense Department.
This report is a follow-up to the series ‘Uncounted Casualties.’ Based on a six-month review by a Statesman investigative team, the series reported that hundreds of Texas veterans had died of suicide, drug overdoses and vehicle crashes after returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Find it at statesman.com/uncountedcasualties.
To get help
Military/veteran crisis line: 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1