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We Don't Know Enough About Veteran Suicide. LA County Is Looking To Fix That.

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(Credit: Israel Palacios on Unsplash)
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A warning that this piece discusses suicide and suicidal ideation, which some people might find disturbing.

Nico Correa's service in the Army included two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He left the military in 2015 after 15 years.

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"I tell people I'm 39 but I feel 59 inside," Correa said. "[Because of] the wear and tear, mentally."

As a combat veteran, Correa said he knows the anguish that former service members go through. For many, coming home doesn't bring an end to those struggles.

"I was lost in the sauce," he said. "I didn't know what route to take, which direction."

Correa tells the story of one of his buddies -- someone he served with -- who died by suicide. His friend's wife also took her own life.

"And they had a son and now his son's alone," Correa said. "We had to find his grandparents. It was bizarre."

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Correa offers grassroots support to fellow veterans with a group he started a few years ago called PTSD Armor. But he and other advocates have a problem: the data on veteran suicides often comes years after the fact and is incomplete.

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Nico Correa during his time serving in the Army in Iraq. (Courtesy Nico Correa)

In L.A. County there's a push to get a better understanding of not just the number of veterans who are lost to suicide, but also more information on the individuals behind the numbers.

"Really the intent is to provide data more real-time with additional information that can be used within the community," said Roberto Álvarez, special assistant for military and veterans affairs for L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. He's looking at the feasibility of creating a veteran suicide review team. This fall, the supervisors voted to study how such a team might work.

"It stems from the fact that the data that's published for veteran suicide within L.A. County comes from the state," Álvarez said. That data comes about two years after the fact, with no way to break it down.

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A study of all L.A. County suicide deaths during the past five years found nearly 6% could be confirmed as veterans. That's in a county where veterans make up about 3% of the larger population. Sharon Birman, chief of suicide prevention at the West L.A. VA Medical Center, presented the data at a virtual conference this fall.

"That's really scary, that's compelling data," Birman said. "That says ... we need to pay attention to this vulnerable population."

What's more, it's possible that veteran suicide deaths were undercounted in the study, since researchers were unable to determine whether veterans were among 5% of those suicides.

Birman said part of the idea behind the review team would be to create a data sharing agreement between the coroner's office and the V.A. Together they would generate more up-to-date information through a monthly review of veteran suicides in the county.

And, Birman said, the review would dig deeper, "to take more of a proactive approach and understanding what are the risk factors in every single suicide. What happened? Understanding the story behind the suicide."

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The hope is that this more granular data will better guide the efforts of county and nonprofit agencies.

In the meantime, Nico Correa is offering whatever help he can to fellow veterans with his support group.

"We could do Skype or Zoom, whatever it is, because the veteran crisis line, it's one thing. But there's got to be more than just the veteran crisis line," Correa said.

With the isolation and mental health concerns that have come with the pandemic, Correa says keeping up those connections with people who understand the veteran experience is more important than ever.

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This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.