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What's Killing America's Veterans? Here's What the Data Says

Marines at ease during their march at the Veterans Day celebrations in New York, New York, USA Photograph by Zoran Milich—Getty Images

This Saturday marks Veterans Day, when Americans pay respect to those who have served in the armed forces. But it also marks an opportunity to highlight the issues most important to military families—and few are quite as significant as the persistent holes in medical care and socioeconomic ills which afflict veterans’ health.

Suicide and drug overdoses are two of the biggest killers of veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Suicide Prevention, an average of 20 veterans committed suicide every day in 2014. In fact, 18% of all American adult suicides that year were committed by veterans, even though veterans made up just 8.5% of the population. Male veterans had a 19% higher risk for suicide compared to the general population while women veterans were 2.5 times as likely to kill themselves compared to the female civilian population, and suicide rates were highest among young veterans aged 18 to 29.

Those are some brutal figures, and as the VA points out in its most recent comprehensive suicide report, a big part of the problem is that veterans either don’t get—or don’t have access to—the health care services to which they’re entitled. A blistering Inspector General report from 2015 found that more than 300,000 veterans likely died while waiting for VA health care, including some who committed suicide as they waited for mental health services for conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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And then there’s the ever-exploding opioid addiction and overdose crisis. Accidental overdoses in particular have hit veterans harder than the broader American populace, as Reuters reports, in part because veterans are more likely to be prescribed painkillers to treat injuries maintained during combat. All told, veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental painkiller overdoses compared to civilians, federal data shows.

The challenges to veterans’ health care are also exacerbated by the high rates of homelessness in the community. Nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and that sort of living situation is linked with both mental health problems and drug addiction. “In addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness—extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care—a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks,” writes the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

The VA has been fighting to reverse a years-long trend of medical claims backlogs to get care to veterans more promptly; but, as the sobering statistics show, fixing veterans’ health care is an uphill undertaking.

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