(Below is my original letter I sent on April 23, 2008 that The San Francisco Chronicle ignored)
“More than 120 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq commit suicide every week,” according to veterans advocates, began a San Francisco Chronicle front-page story: VA stalls on care while 18 veterans a day commit suicide, judge is told, by Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer, Tuesday, April 22, 2008.
That’s terrible. Terrible journalism, that is. The rate of 18 veterans a day committing suicide is for all veterans, not just veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For comparison purposes, the acknowledged VA veteran suicide rate is 19 per 100,000 per year, which is about the same or lower than the suicide rates for both sexes in entire countries: Japan, Belgium, Finland, Cuba, France, Austria, Korea, and Switzerland.
In US male veterans to all males comparisons, which is the closest I could get to “apples to apples,” the entire male populations of over forty nations have higher or similar suicide rates than our veterans (the rate for all American males is 17.9). Our active duty military suicide rate is 11 per 100,000 per year, about half our civilian rate for same-age males. From an analysis of suicide statistics, it actually shows it is safer from a suicide perspective to be a veteran or serving on active military duty.
True, but you’ll never see that in a Chronicle headline on the front page.
(I e-mailed the following letter after waiting several days and not getting a response to my orignal letter above.)
I sent a letter to the Chronicle Editor April 22, 2008 about errors in a Chronicle story about a lawsuit by veterans advocates. More recent Chronicle news stories on the trial are bringing out that plaintiffs' lawyer Arturo Gonzalez does not understand that the Veterans Administration suicide numbers are for all 26 million veterans, not just the 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans (whose 144 suicides over a four-year period produce a very low suicide rate of 2 per 100,000 per year, less than one-quarter of the general population rate). I don't understand how Gonzalez's ignorance of such a basic fact could prevent the judge from throwing this case out immediately. As a minimum the Chronicle should correct its previous reporting on this issue and set the record straight.
(A Chronicle columnist informed me that the Chronicle had run a correction on April 26, 2008, the day after the Chronicle had run an article by the columnist containing similar erroneous information from Mr. Erspamer, lawyer for one of the plaintiffs. The San Francisco Chronicle ran the correction two days after I had informed them of the error in their original April 22, 2008 story on veteran suicides.)
-- An article on Tuesday about the trial of a lawsuit by veterans' groups over health treatment mischaracterized a government report that 18 veterans a day commit suicide. The report referred to veterans of all wars, not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(I dashed off an immediate reply.)
I found the correction, but it doesn't tell the story. Both lawyers, Erspamer and Gonzalez, according to quotes that both you (the columnist) and Bob Egelko ran with, said that the 18 suicides a day were Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans.
Don't you think there is a story to be told about how you and the court were given misleading information, information that supposedly formed the major basis for this issue to be brought to court?
The article didn't "mischaracterize" the government report about veteran suicides, the veteran advocates' attorneys did.
(I had copied the Chronicle's Readers Representative on the above message, and at this point he entered the discussion.)
Since you copied me on this, let me jump in. I might be misreading, but I don't see anywhere that Erspamer or Gonzalez asserted 18 suicides per day for Iraq/Afghanistan vets -- at least not in Bob Egelko's stories or Chuck Nevius' column. The lawyers' comments referred to 18 per day for veterans, period. The Iraq/Afghanistan qualifier was the paper's mistake. It mischaracterized, not the lawyers.
In the Egelko story, Erspamer was described this way: "He said veterans are committing suicide at the rate of 18 a day - a number acknowledged by a VA official in a Dec. 15 e-mail - and the agency's backlog of disability claims now exceeds 650,000, an increase of 200,000 since the Iraq war started in 2003."
That line was interpreted in the editing process to mean veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan -- the paper's error. In the Nevius column, the Erspamer quote is: "If you add up the veterans' suicides among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and compare it to the total combat deaths, the veteran suicides are higher," says Erspamer, who introduced a VA e-mail at the trial that showed an average of 18 vets a day are committing suicide. "The VA doesn't want that out."
There might be a little ambiguity there, but strictly speaking Erspamer's not saying 18 a day attributable to Iraq/Afghanistan. Now as to your point about whether Erspamer is misleading the court, I think the jury's out on that, to steal a phrase. Using rough numbers of five years of war and 4,000 combat deaths, it would take slightly over 2 suicides per day among Iraq/Afghanistan vets to exceed the combat figures. e.g.: 4000/(5*365). My arithmetic might be faulty here, so feel free to critique, but my point is that it would be possible to exceed the combat death toll without ever approaching the 18 suicides per day figure.
Hope I'm not confusing things.
(Again I sent the immediate reply below.)
Thank you for your reply to my concerns. Although I profoundly disagree with your analysis and conclusion, I appreciate you took the time to respond. I hope you will carefully and with an open mind consider what I present below. I gleaned these five items from the Chronicle this week. The last item is courtesy your e-mail.
I begin my comments and analysis after the fifth item. I added the bold highlighting to the items.
More than 120 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq commit suicide every week while the government stalls in granting returning troops the mental health treatment and benefits to which they are entitled, veterans advocates told a federal judge Monday in San Francisco. VA stalls on care while 18 veterans a day commit suicide, judge is told, by Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer, Tuesday, April 22, 2008.
"If you add up the veterans' suicides among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and compare it to the total combat deaths, the veteran suicides are higher," says Erspamer, who introduced a VA e-mail at the trial that showed an average of 18 vets a day are committing suicide. "The VA doesn't want that out." Attorney leading suit a veteran in battling VA, by C.W. Nevius, Thursday, April 24, 2008
For instance, VA Secretary James Peake told Congress in a Feb. 5 letter that 144 combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide between October 2001 and December 2005.
But Gonzalez produced internal VA e-mails that contended that 18 veterans a day were committing suicide. Kussman countered that the figure, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, included all 26 million veterans in the country, including aging Vietnam veterans who are reporting an increased number of health problems. Veterans Affairs official denies cover-up of suicide rates, By PAUL ELIAS, Associated Press Writer, Friday, April 25, 2008, published in the Chronicle.
During opening statements Monday, a lawyer for the veterans' groups displayed an e-mail that a top VA mental health official, Ira Katz, sent in December in which he said veterans were committing suicide at the rate of 18 a day.
Maris said Tuesday that Katz had been referring primarily to veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an interview, he said the suicide rate among veterans has been increasing since 2001, according to government reports he has studied. VA faulted in diagnosing suicide candidates, by Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer, Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Now as to your point about whether Erspamer is misleading the court, I think the jury's out on that, to steal a phrase. Using rough numbers of five years of war and 4,000 combat deaths, it would take slightly over 2 suicides per day among Iraq/Afghanistan vets to exceed the combat figures. e.g.: 4000/(5*365).
(This is an excerpt from the e-mail sent me by the Chronicle Readers Representative.)
(My reply to the Readers Representative.)
I guess you don’t read your own paper. In an AP release April 25 covering this trial (my Item 3, first paragraph), the VA states that “144 combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide between October 2001 and December 2005.” That’s 36 a year, e.g. 144/4, compared to 4,000 combat deaths in five years.
I can understand why your reporter, Bob Egelko, was confused about the 18 suicides per day being by veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq (my Item 4, second paragraph). That’s what Ronald Maris, a University of South Carolina sociology professor, apparently told U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti in San Francisco, according to Egelko’s April 23 report.
Clearly Gonzalez was misleading the court. When the VA stated the 144 veteran suicides in four years involved Iraq and Afghanistan service, Gonzalez contested that and contended that 18 veterans per day were committing suicide (my Item 3). That was then countered by the VA, but it is obvious that Gonzalez was referring to suicides by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Based on information I gleaned from the pages of the Chronicle this past week, is the jury still out, as you say, that Erspamer, Maris, and Gonzalez were providing misleading information? If so, the jury must be deaf, dumb, and blind, and have no nose for news.
By the way, Dick, can’t anyone at the Chronicle critically analyze statistical information? Veterans committing suicide at the rate of 18 per day * 365 days = 6570 per year.
6570 veteran suicides per year divided by 26,000,000 veterans = 0.000253
0.000253 * 100, 000 = 25 veteran suicides per 100,000 per year.
Suicide rates are conventionally expressed as the number of suicides per 100,000 persons per year.
A couple of months ago CBS News did an exhaustive five-month study of veteran suicides and determined rates of 18 to 20 per 100,000 per year. In their ignorance of world suicide rates, Katie Couric and crew trumpeted their finding as an “epidemic of veteran suicides,” even though the rate they found was low by world standards. Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans: A CBS News Investigation Uncovers A Suicide Rate For Veterans Twice That Of Other Americans
(My hint to CBS News – Katie, the suicide rate for veterans is twice that of other Americans, because over half of the other Americans are females, and less than ten percent of veterans are females. Also, Katie, a large percentage of other Americans are sub-teen children, and none of the veterans are.)
This link is to my blog post trying to correct CBS News and Perky Katie Couric for the hash they made of reporting veteran suicides. They did the same thing as the Chronicle, and ignored the facts to preserve the bashing of the Bush administration.
As a basis for comparison, eight nations have suicide rates above 25 per 100,000 per year regardless of gender or age (Russia’s is 34, according to the World Health Organization), and Japan’s at 24 per 100,000 per year is only slightly lower. Use this link to check on my statistics. I Googled it, just as any quasi-competent journalist would.
Using the CBS News veteran suicide rate, roughly twenty nations have higher all population rates. In fact, the suicide rates for all males in thirty-seven nations are as high or higher than the American veteran rate.
Comparing apples to apples, at least twenty-one nations of the world have higher male suicide rates than American veterans, and those rates include the males of those nations of all ages – you know, like babies and sub-teens, and middle-aged men, all who have traditionally low suicide rates.
Even France, with its health system that is lauded by believers in national health systems, has a suicide rate for all French males of 27.5, or ten percent higher than our veterans’ rate which is heavily skewed towards aging Vietnam era men. Older men have relatively high suicide rates because of illness and infirmity.
I’m sure someone at the Chronicle in an editor position must be aware of this sort of information. Or should be.
There is a real news story in all this, but it doesn’t look like the Chronicle is capable of digging it out, no matter how hard I try to assist.