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Troubling trend for vets

Published December 27. 2012 4:00AM

The plight of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating injuries, alcohol and drug dependencies and psychological trauma long has been among the most tragic but overlooked consequences of combat.

A series of investigative articles published two months ago in the Austin American-Statesman described how hundreds of Texas veterans have died since returning home, along with the government's failure to track this disturbing development.

This week the Department of Veterans Affairs announced plans to launch a mortality study to help determine if apparently higher-than-expected death rates for veterans in Texas are part of a national trend and, if so, what can be done to reverse it.

Such an inquiry is long overdue, and this newspaper urges officials to follow through with not just a policy report but a list of specific recommendations.

As the Texas newspaper reported, the VA has periodically studied suicide rates among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the government agency has done far less to understand other causes of death, including drug overdoses. A six-month Statesman investigation found that nearly as many Texas veterans had died after taking prescription medicine as had committed suicide.

The Texas newspaper's probe relied on 345 fragmentary death records provided by the VA - along with obituaries and interviews with veterans' families - that found veterans who have returned home after deployments to the war zone tended to die earlier than the rest of the population. The paper reported more than 1 in 3 died from a drug overdose, a fatal combination of drugs or suicide, and nearly 1 in 5 died in a motor vehicle crash.

It would be disgraceful enough if, as the articles suggest, the Pentagon inadvertently overlooked the toll repeated deployments has had on the military, but even more so if the government deliberately ignored or underplayed the price so many veterans and their families have paid.

With U.S. combat essentially over in Iraq and slowly winding down in Afghanistan, more service men and women are returning stateside, so if there are serious nationwide problems involving veterans they will continue to grow unless the government improves and expands its treatment programs.

We owe it not just to veterans and their families, but to ourselves as a nation.

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