Benishek urges probe of vets’ suicide issue

MARQUETTE – A Michigan congressman is part of a bipartisan group pushing officials to more closely investigate the topic of veteran suicide.

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, is one of 53 members of Congress who sent a letter to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In it, the representatives from both parties requested Veterans’ Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel begin more closely examining the possible connection between blast injuries and high suicide rates among veterans and active duty military personnel.

“By collecting information about the physical injuries sustained by suicide victims, we can get a better sense of the root causes of military and veteran suicide,” the letter reads.

According to the 2012 Suicide Data Report compiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the total number of veteran suicides has increased in recent years, but the percentage of all suicides that were veterans has decreased.

According to the most recent data, slightly more than 20 percent of suicides were reported as being veterans. In Michigan, that number is between 22.9 and 24.6 percent.

Though the data is not totally conclusive and the numbers could be higher, the report estimates that there are about 22 veteran suicides each day.

As the use of improvised explosive devices has increased, so have related injuries, the congressional letter states. Evidence shows that blast injuries may be tied to a higher rate of suicide, the representatives said.

“Far too many of our veterans and military personnel have taken their own life after bravely serving our nation. Frankly, it’s tragic and unacceptable,” said Benishek, a surgeon who also worked at the VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain for two decades. “I am hopeful that by working together we can make sure our guys and gals in the military and the VA have the support they need to recover from the damaging psychological effects of war.”

Dr. Clifford Smith, the chief of behavioral health service at Iron Mountain’s Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center, said he is also monitoring the situation.

“Suicide is complex and involves multiple factors, often with physical, emotional and social components. The VA and DOD are aggressively researching and addressing the issue,” he said. “One suicide is one too many.”

The group of representatives requested information, including a description of what blast trauma studies and research is taking place and which departments are heading it, from the national secretaries.

The letter also requests a few areas of inquiry – including whether veterans who commit suicide were in an IED attack and whether they were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder – be added to the study plan for the National Mortality Study and be presented to Congress at its conclusion.

Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is