CBS News investigative producer Pia Malbran wrote this story for CBSNews.com.
Last year, at about this time, officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claimed veterans were not at an increased risk for suicide but now, after facing a series of investigative stories by CBS News, a massive lawsuit and several Congressional hearings, the agency has changed its stance.
The VA announced new suicide figures Tuesday that reveal veterans are killing themselves in record numbers and, as CBS News first discovered and reported last November, young male vets in their 20's are the most at risk.
The new data was generated by a panel of mental health experts who were brought together by the VA, after pressure from Washington lawmakers, to help analyze the true scope of the problem.
VA's Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Michael Kussman, presented the results to the media during a press conference.
The key finding shows that (based on the most recent death stats available) in 2006, male veterans (in the VA system) between the ages of 18 to 29 committed suicide at a rate (45.82 per 100,000) higher than all other veterans and at a rate that is at the least more than double what it is for male civilians the same age.
According to the VA data, the suicide figure for these young vets has also grown since 2002 when the rate of suicide for 18 to 29-year-old male veterans (in the VA system) was 36.54 per 100,000.
"We are not surprised by the numbers," said Paul Sullivan, the executive director for Veterans for Common Sense, the non-profit advocate group that sued the VA last year calling for an overhaul of the system. Sullivan says suicide is a serious issue for those who have served in the military and he claims the VA has had a pattern of under estimating how big the problem really is.
Last year, CBS News launched a five-month investigation after being told that the VA had no records showing how many veterans were dying of suicide. In an interview with Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian, the VA's head of mental health, Dr. Ira Katz, said "there is no epidemic of suicide in VA."
That same sentiment was echoed this week by Dr. Kussman despite the latest findings. The VA does, however, plan to take several steps in the coming months to beef up its already growing suicide prevention efforts. The panel made several recommendations on how the agency can do that including having more staff training, more community outreach and starting a gun-safety program for vets who have children.
Since last July, the VA has been operating a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline, 1-800-273-TALK, which has received more than 62,000 calls to date.
Suicide Warning Signs:
Here are key suicide warning signs to watch out for, according to the VA:
Talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself
Trying to get pills, guns, or other ways to harm oneself
Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
Acting in a reckless or risky way
Feeling trapped, like there is no way out
Saying or feeling there's no reason for living
By Pia Malbran