The nation's newest combat veterans — those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — say the biggest challenge facing their generation is suicide, according to a survey by the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
About 3,000 active-duty troops have killed themselves since the 2001. The annual tally of these deaths climbs each year. And those numbers often don't include service members who are part of the National Guard or reserve and died by their own hand.
Moreover, the Department of Veterans Affairs has uncovered evidence that this self-destructive trend is following many young veterans after they leave the service, adding to an estimated tally of some 22 suicides per day among veterans of all ages.
"The fact that so many of our members know someone that has tried to commit suicide or that had mental health issues really underscores the seriousness of this problem," says Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the association.
The survey results were based on answers from about 4,000 veterans who responded after the association sent questions to its 120,000 members in February.
About a third of those who responded to the survey said they had considered taking their own life at some point. A slightly larger percentage said they knew someone who had committed suicide. Forty-five percent say they know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide. Two-thirds say they have veteran friends who need mental health counseling.
"I don't think anybody thought this was going to be an easy problem to fix," Tarantino says. "But this is a very complicated problem with no one policy solution."
The Army, which continues to report record numbers of suicides each year, recently acknowledged that, despite years of education, soldiers remain resistant to seeking mental health care out of fear they will be perceived as weak.
One good sign from the survey: 93% of veterans said were aware of the VA's Veteran Crisis Line — 800-273-8255. But 80% said they did not think the Pentagon or the VA was doing a good job of providing adequate mental health support for veterans.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is the largest group representing those troops who deployed to those wars.
Other issues raised by veterans:
• They gave high marks to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill that provides education funding, with about 70% using the benefit and 84% of those satisfied with their schooling.
• Joblessness and a VA compensation claim backlog remain key gripes, though both the unemployment rate and the backlog have declined since the survey was taken.
• Congress and President Obama received low marks with 55% and 44% of veterans, respectively, saying lawmakers and the president did a poor job of improving their lives.