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Texas Veterans Dying Too Young
In today’s Sunday paper there was a story with the headline, “Report: Texas veterans dying young at alarming rate.” Initially, I assumed the article was about the high number of WWII vets this country is losing each day. I was wrong.
A six-month investigation by the Austin American-Statesman of Texas’ Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military found that an alarmingly high percentage died from prescription drug overdoses, toxic drug combinations, suicide and single-car crashes — a largely unseen pattern of early death that federal authorities are failing to adequately track. [emphasis mine]
The age of those Texan veterans dying wasn’t due to old age at all. In fact, the median age was just 28 years old, according to the report. If that’s the MEDIAN age, too many Texans are dying too young after serving their nation in combat.
The military is trying to deal with the prescription medication issue while still on active duty. Any Soldier in the Army that is prescribed 4 or more medications, one of which is an anti-depressant or narcotic, must see a separate doctor to manage those prescriptions and verify they are necessary and won’t put troops in danger. This is not a one-time deal either. Troops meet often with the medication specialists over time. By virtue of the medications alone, these troops are put in the “high risk” category and closely watched. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I fall into that category and I welcome the extra attention to ensure that I’m not filling my body with anything that may harm me down the road.
One of the problems, I think, is that many troops with PTS have it as the result of a traumatic event that resulted in injury. Because of the injury, many troops are on pain killers as well as anti-depressants – a potentially dangerous combination. Combine those with sleeping aids and the cocktail is that much more potent.
However, I’m not sure if that is the same course of action being pursued by the VA once troops leave active duty. I’m also not sure if all services manage prescriptions medications and follow their troops the way the Army is. The article makes it sound as if the VA doesn’t really care why troops are dying.
The Department of Veterans Affairs, which serves nearly half of recent veterans, does not regularly track individual causes of death, a shortcoming that critics say prevents it from understanding the scope of the problems facing those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This is the problem. We hear a lot of lip service coming out of Washington about how we need to take care of our troops and more than 11 years after combat action began we still aren’t taking care of our veterans’ medical needs.
Here is what the six-month investigation by the Austin American-Statesman found:
— More than one in three died from a drug overdose, a fatal combination of drugs, or suicide. Their median age at death was 28.
— Nearly one in five died in a motor vehicle crash.
— Among those with a primary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, the numbers are even more disturbing: 80 percent died of overdose, suicide or a single vehicle crash. Only two of the 46 Texas veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with a PTSD diagnosis died of natural causes, according to the analysis.
— The 345 Texas veterans identified by the VA as having died since coming home is equal to nearly two-thirds of the state’s casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that only includes veterans who have sought VA benefits, meaning the total number of deaths is likely much larger.
This is unacceptable and our elected officials need to hear our voices. When retired General Eric Shinseki took over the VA in 2009 he made promises during his confirmation hearing about transforming the VA into a veteran-focused entity, treating us as “clients” that deserve the respect organizations give their clients.
As Senator Wicker mentioned earlier, there are three fundamental attributes for me that mark the start point of framing a 21st century organization for Veterans’ Affairs. It’ll be people-centric. It must be results-driven. And, by necessity, it must be forward-looking.
And, first, about people: Veterans will be the centerpiece of our organization, our clients, as we design and implement and sustain programs which serve them. Through their service in uniform, veterans have sacrificed greatly, investing of themselves in the security, the safety and the well-being of our nation.
They are clients — and I use that term particularly — not just customers of our services. They are clients whom we represent, and whose best interests are our sole reason for existence. It is our charge to address their changing needs over time, and across the full range of support that our government has committed to providing them.
So, has the Secretary kept those promises; met those challenges? I would say no. The VA won’t fund the cost of service dogs for veterans with PTS diagnoses because there aren’t any studies about it. They aren’t tracking even the simplest of data metrics like medications and causes of death.
Texas is home to a large population of veterans. I think only California has more, if I’m not mistaken. This is not just a Texas problem, but it’s especially alarming that a state with so many military installations can’t take care of its veterans.
Obviously, the VA can’t do it alone. It’s going to take a concerted effort by many different entities. Communities need to come together and identify its veterans. The VFW and American Legion posts scattered around need to reach out aggressively and extend a hand of camaraderie. Active duty troops should be aware of their surroundings and engage veterans. They’re not hard to find. They usually have a bumper sticker, a t-shirt, or a hat identifying them as veterans. And local governments need to do a better job of reaching out the veteran community through programs aimed at bringing veterans together for a common cause of fellowship and purpose.