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Congress seeks comprehensive data on veterans' mental health

WASHINGTON - The parents of an Iraq war veteran who committed suicide and members of Congress on Wednesday questioned why there's not a comprehensive tracking system of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Mike Bowman of Forreston, Ill., said his son, Spc. Timothy Bowman, 23, is 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 war. Bowman said he considers 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. Northern Illinois University journalism student Ilona Meagher, who earlier this year published a book on veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, testified at the committee hearing as well. Meagher said she discussed her work - she has been collecting for the past two years information on soldiers who have committed suicide after returning from war. “I wanted to preserve them before they are lost so other researchers can use them,” she said during a phone interview Thursday morning. “It was very humbling (to testify), and it was just an incredible climax for myself after two years of work on an issue that I felt needed to be covered, and now it is.” Rep. Bob Filner, the committee chairman, questioned why the comprehensive tracking wasn't already being done. “They don't want to know this, it looks to me,” said Filner, D-Calif. “This could be tracked.” Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's 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 implementing a suicide prevention hotline. “We have a major suicide prevention program, the most comprehensive in the nation,” Katz said. Katz questioned why Filner was focusing on the number of suicides instead of looking at treatment programs implemented to help prevent suicide. Awareness of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans was heightened earlier 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 have been discharged from the military. The Pentagon tracks the number of suicides in Iraq and Afghanistan. For an earlier story, a Pentagon spokeswoman told The Associated Press the military does not keep track of whether active duty troops who took who took their own lives served in Iraq or Afghanistan. In an e-mail on 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 AP 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 committed suicide. On Wednesday, Katz said the VA's number had been changed to 144 because some of the veterans counted were actually in the active military and not discharged on the day they committed suicide. Smith said that the military's suicide rate is still lower than that of the general population. After leaving the military, however, veterans appear to be at greater risk for suicide than those who didn't serve. Earlier this year, researchers at Portland State University in Oregon found male veterans were twice as likely to commit suicide as their civilian counterparts. In a report last May, the VA Inspector General said VA officials estimate 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care within the agency and as many as 5,000 per year among all veterans. “When decision makers do no have reliable data, we must rely on anecdotal evidence,” said Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind. “While these may help inform us, it does not help us to develop strategies to diminish the risk and prevent incidents of suicide.”

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