Veteran services

Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs pledges further support in the fight against veteran suicide

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) – At the US GI Forum in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, the US Department of Veterans Affairs said the VA is prioritizing increased support for veterans struggling with the transition to life civil. This includes veteran suicide prevention.

In 2021, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs released an “Annual National Report on Veteran Suicide Prevention”. The report points out that in 2001, 5,989 veterans nationwide died by suicide. This number rose to 6,261 in 2019. The suicide rate among veterans increased by 35.9% from 2001 to 2019, from 23.3 per 100,000
in 2001 to 31.6 per 100,000 in 2019, according to the annual report.

However, no additional report has been released with updated data on the 2020 and 2021 figures nationally. At the local level, the El Paso County Coroner releases an annual report detailing suicide rates.

In 2019, there were 180 total suicides. Of these, 19% of the suicides were known to be active or prior military service. In the 2020 report, that number rose to 20% of the 178 total suicides being people known to be on active or prior military service.

Last year, in 2021, that number jumped even bigger, with 30 percent of the 176 reported suicides in El Paso County being people with known active or prior military service.

Jim Lorraine, CEO of America’s Warrior Project, told KRDO that the data he has seen indicates that the majority of veterans who have committed suicide were not registered with the VA. He estimates that of the roughly 18 million veterans nationwide, about half aren’t part of the VA or aren’t aware of the resources they can provide.

He believes there should be more local resources that can identify veterans in every community and equip them with the resources they need before something bad happens.

“You can’t wait for them to be in crisis. You have to have an upstream approach, build a relationship before the crisis, connect them to resources, you’ll lower the suicide rate,” Lorraine said.

Lorraine also explained that there’s usually a two-year turnaround to get updated data to organizations like the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The data has to go from the county to the state, to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and then to the VA,” Lorraine said.

During Tuesday’s GI Forum, veterans Jose Martinez and Luis Vasquez spoke to KRDO about ways to help prevent veteran suicides in the Pikes Peak community.

“I think veterans are sometimes too proud to ask for help. We can use a lot more outreach,” Martinez said. “A lot of times a veteran just needs to talk to another veteran. People who have been there can speak to another person.”

Donald Remy, the Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs, told KRDO that installing the new “988” national suicide prevention hotline will help exponentially. Rocky Mountian Crisis Partners officials say the hotline will make it easier for people to remember what to call if they are in a mental health crisis quickly compared to the previous number which had ten digits.

“It starts when they’re on active duty and it continues when they become veterans,” Remy said. “We can make sure they are aware of all the care and services that are available to them.

When people call or text 988, trained emergency counselors will be able to help them.

“Whenever they need to reach out, we’re here. Whenever they need someone, we’re available,” Remy said. “We have counselors in our medical centers. We have veterinary centers where counselors are available.”

If you are an El Paso County Veteran, the Mount Carmel Veterans Service Center is ready to help. At the state level, the American GI Forum has campuses in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. You can find more information about the resources they provide here.