For years, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has painstakingly labored to track, research, and address veteran suicide. Their exceptional work was dealt an unwarranted blow a month ago with the publication of an incomplete report entitled Operation Deep Dive (OpDD). The $3.9 million study from America’s Warrior Partnership (AWP) examined death data of former service members in 8 states between 2014 and 2018. The interim report criticized the VA for minimizing the extent of veteran suicide, asserting, “former service members take their own lives each year at a rate approximately 2.4 times greater than previously reported by the VA.”
The sensational results were accepted at face value and immediately garnered negative nationwide headlines, with lawmakers, media outlets, and veterans rushing to impugn the VA. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Republican Member Jerry Moran of Kansas opined, “The disparity between the numbers of veteran suicides reported by the VA and [OpDD] is concerning. We need an honest assessment of the scope of the problem.” A U.S. Medicine headline stated “VA undercounted thousands of veteran suicides. [OpDD] posited daily suicide rate is 240% higher.” Fox News declared, “Veterans committing suicide at rate 2 times higher than VA data show: study,” as did Military Times , “Veterans suicide rate may be double federal estimates, study suggests.”
Disturbingly, those who echoed AWP’s claims got the story backward. It’s AWP, not VA, whose suicide data and conclusions are faulty.
For starters, the VA data encompasses veterans across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. In contrast, AWP inferred national veteran suicide figures based on partial, skewed data. As delineated by researchers in an in-press Military Medicine letter to the Editor, 7 of the 8 states sampled (Alabama, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and Oregon) had suicide rates above the national average for the years under investigation. This factor alone overinflates AWP’s purported suicide numbers.
Additionally, AWP altered the definition of “taking one’s life” and then misapplied that designation. Conventionally, the term refers to suicide, but AWP used it to also include nonnatural deaths assessed by coroners and medical examiners as accidental or undetermined. Two examples of this self-injury mortality (SIM) are opioid overdoses and single-driver car crash deaths. AWP added suicides and SIMs to derive a total number of veterans who took their life and falsely contrasted that aggregate against the VA count of suicides. That’s like comparing the whole category of fruit to the subcategory of apples.
AWP should be applauded for drawing attention to and accounting for accidental and undetermined deaths. However, the standard protocol is to consider SIMs distinctly from suicides . Among the many reasons for precise labeling is so that grieving family members aren’t mistakenly informed that their loved one died by suicide. VA conveys the rate of veteran overdose deaths in separate reports, for example, the Veteran Drug Overdose Mortality, 2010-2019 publication. Those numbers were ignored in AWP’s calculations.
AWP was neglectful in another way. The second phase of the project—a deep examination of community-level factors preceding suicides and nonnatural deaths—began in 2019. This information was collected and analyzed through sociocultural death investigation (SDI) interviews of 3 to 4 family members, friends, and colleagues of the deceased. SDIs consisted of 19 factors , such as history of the veteran’s mental health problems, social connectedness, finances, group memberships, and access to firearms. However, the interim report omitted the preliminary analysis of these factors, which AWP stated would be made available this year.