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Veterans Administration: Efforts continue to reduce vets' suicides

Tribune-Review - 6/29/2018

June 29--Despite their efforts to reach out and help veterans in crisis, the suicide rate among veterans remains about 20 a day, said a Veterans Affairs official in Pittsburgh.

"It's very disturbing. We want to make sure we do all we can to save a life. It's going to take a community to do that," said Karin McGraw, medical center director for the VA in Pittsburgh, told about 30 veterans Wednesday.

They were gathered at the American Legion Post No. 344 in Jeannette for one of a series of town hall meetings the VA is holding in Western Pennsylvania to discuss the services the agency provides veterans.

"It is going to take a lot of public knowledge to educate people to get the care they need. We must focus on identifying the risks," said McGraw, noting the VA does publicize its crisis services.

The VA has learned that more than one-half of the veterans who have committed suicide never got intervention from the VA for the available care, McGraw said.

They can phone the VA or go online to receive assistance, regardless of their discharge status or whether they are currently enrolled in the VA medical system, McGraw said.

"We're trying to maximize social media," McGraw said.

Suicide rates among veterans mirror those of the general population in the region where they live, but the risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among veterans compared to non-veterans, according to information from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said.

The suicide rate among middle-age and older adult vets remain high, with about 65 percent of all veterans who committed suicide in 2014 age 50 or older. About 31 percent of the suicides were committed by Vietnam War-era veterans.

Ronald Hestalen, director of the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies, a burial site in Cecil, Washington County, said the number of burials at the cemetery have increased from 10 to 15 per week when it opened in 2005 to about 40 per week now.

Among those veterans attending the meeting was Wayne Clemens of Hempfield, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War and Vietnam War eras.

Clemens said he has been pleased with the care he has received. Despite his military service records being lost in a fire in the 1970s, "The VA never denied me care."

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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