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WASHINGTON — In 2019, 6,261 veterans died by suicide — 399 fewer than in 2018 and the fewest veteran suicides in a single year since 2007, according to new data released Wednesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA compiles its data on a two-year lag and revealed for the first time Wednesday the number of suicides in 2019. The average number of veteran suicides decreased slightly from 17.6 each day in 2018 to 17.2 in 2019.

“This year’s report is notable for some frankly unprecedented aspects of suicide prevention progress,” said Matthew Miller, executive director of the VA Suicide Prevention Program.

The National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Reports, released every September, are typically used by veteran services organizations and lawmakers to understand the scope of the suicide crisis plaguing the veteran community. They’re used to gauge which legislative efforts should take priority and provide critical oversight of the VA.

Because of the two-year lag, the 2021 report does not contain any data relevant to the coronavirus pandemic. The VA said in a statement Wednesday that it has not yet observed any increase in suicides among VA patients because of the pandemic.

Despite the decrease, suicide among veterans remained disproportionately high. The rate for veterans in 2019 was 52.3% higher than for other adults in the United States. However, suicide rates fell more sharply for veterans in 2019 than for the rest of the adult population. From 2018 to 2019, there was a 7.2% decrease in the veteran suicide rate, while the overall suicide rate fell by only 1.8%.

The report breaks down the method, as well as the gender, ages and ethnicities of veterans who died by suicide in 2019.

Veterans continue to use guns more than any other means of suicide. Firearms were used in 69.6% of veteran suicides in 2018 and 70.2% in 2019. For the rest of the U.S. population, firearms were used in about 50% of suicides.

“Firearms remain by far the highest lethal means by which veteran suicide occurs,” Miller said.

The VA just launched a 15-second advertisement about the importance of safe storage of firearms. The ad will run through September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

The report contains “five pillars of hope,” Miller said, which are five statistics that provide reason for optimism in the fight against veteran suicide.

The pillars include the falling suicide rate and the more drastic decrease in suicides among veterans than other Americans.

A decrease in the suicide rate for female veterans is also reason for optimism, according to the report. There was a 13% decrease in suicide among female veterans in 2019 — the largest decrease in 17 years.

“It’s really difficult to talk about success in the context of the overall count. … The VA will not stop and will not be satisfied as long as one veteran is dying from suicide,” he said. “Hope is founded in life, and for that reason we take some time within the report — not to talk about success — but to talk about hope amidst this mission.”

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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