California lawmakers push for better tracking of veteran suicides

Navy veteran Jeff Hensley, a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), unfurls flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on March. 27, 2014. A total of 1,892 flags were planted, each representing the number of veterans and servicemembers estimated to have committed suicide so far in 2014.


By JOSHUA GUTIERREZ | Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif. | Published: July 25, 2017

MARYSVILLE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — It’s an attempt to address a stark reality former military service members and their families face: Finding reliable data on veterans who have died from suicide.

A proposal for new state legislation seeks to help confront the issue by requiring certificates of death to show if a deceased person was ever a member of the United States Armed Forces. In addition, it requires the state Department of Health to access death records and compile a report on veteran suicides beginning in 2019.

Richard Sawyer of Marysville, a service officer with Disabled American Veterans, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the proposed legislation would be useful.

“They should have been keeping those records a long time ago,” said Sawyer. “If a vet commits suicide, it would be nice to back it up. Was he a veteran? Was he in combat? Could it possibly be related to that combat?”

Assemblyman Dr. Joaquin Arambula, a Democrat from Fresno who authored the bill, said the information from the reports will prove better support is needed for former military service members.

“As a physician, I know accurate data will help us better understand the full scope of the problem of veteran suicides in California,” Arambula said. “Tracking this information will help determine whether or not existing suicide prevention efforts are having a positive effect, if more attention to this matter is needed in the future and where to allocate existing resources for mental health funding.”

Area state Sen. Jim Nielsen, Republican from Tehama County, who voted for the bill in the Senate Veteran’s Affair Committee, said the legislation will be useful to identifying a national crisis.

“I have no question this information will be very helpful,” said Nielsen. “To our various veteran operations in the area, we can identify and allot them resources they desperately need.”

California does not require a certificate of death filed with the local registrar to include service in the armed forces. Details such as marital status, birthplace and occupation are required.

The exclusion of military service on a death certificate does lead to skewed results. Such an instance occurred with the Department of Veterans Affairs Suicide Data Report in 2012.

According to the report, of the 21 states analyzed between 1999 and 2010, veteran status was not known for more than 23 percent of all reported suicides. Authors of the report issued a caution with the findings. The report concluded of the roughly 147,000 reported suicides, the 27,000 figure for those identified as having served in the armed forces could be higher.

If passed into law, Arambula said California will join 21 other states in implementing such an effort to better calculate veteran suicide deaths.

The legislation is to be heard before the Senate Appropriations Committee in late August after the legislators return from recess.

Richard Sawyer, Marysville, a service officer with Disabled American Veterans, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Yuba-Sutter is losing about two Vietnam veterans a month to suicide.

“Everybody in the organization knows: If a vet screams for help, you get him help immediately,” Sawyer said. “You don’t let him sit and ponder things. Even if you are just there to listen and be a shoulder to cry on.”

Mike Nichols, president of Yuba-Sutter Veterans Stand Down, said there are many services available to veterans. The trouble is connecting them with the right organization.

“A lot of times we are able to talk with them and figure out where they want to go,” Nichols said. “Many times things get better when they find a niche that is good for them.”

At its annual Stand Down event, coming up Aug. 24-26, Nichols said some 70 vendors ranging from church groups to nonprofits to government agencies, will attempt to assist veterans.

Veteran’s Crisis Hotline
Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. Chat online or text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

©2017 the Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, Calif.)
Visit the Appeal-Democrat at www.appeal-democrat.com
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