The number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans dying at home is outpacing the number of combat deaths in the two wars combined, according to new data from the Department of Veterans Affairs obtained by The Bay Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act.
The VA records, which are drawn from an obscure government database called the Beneficiary Indentification Records Locator Subsystem death file, show that the VA is aware of 4,194 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military between September 2001 and June 2010, The Bay Citizen recently reported.
While that number is below the 5,518 active duty military the Pentagon reports as being killed in the wars in the same period, the records show that the monthly count of veteran deaths began to exceed the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning in September 2007 and has remained higher ever since.
For example, the VA was aware of 113 deaths in May 2010 among veterans of the current conflicts. That month, the Pentagon reported six deaths in Iraq and 34 in Afghanistan.
Observers say the trend is especially concerning because the VA's count is incomplete. Veterans who never applied for VA benefits or were not receiving benefits at the time of their death are not counted.
Veterans' advocates say the real number of dead Iraq and Afghanistan veterans may be double the official figure, since only half of returning veterans are using VA health care.
The VA also said it does not track the cause of veterans' deaths.
In an interview, VA spokesman David Bayard said the agency has no interest in obtaining an accurate count.
"I don't know to what end we have to do it," he said. "We already know what the problem is. We may not know the numbers, but our charge is to treat those who come to our door, and that is what we are addressing."
Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, which brought a class action lawsuit against the VA for failing to provide adequate health care and disability benefits, called the government’s position “intentional ignorance.”
The VA cannot properly design programs to serve veterans if it does not know how many of them have already died and why, he said.
“We call it the VA’s ‘don’t look, don’t find’ attitude,” Sullivan said.
“The American people really need to know what the whole cost of war is,” said Todd Stenhouse, spokesman for the Los Angeles-based National Veterans Foundation. “It’s hard to comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to know that.”
Still, records released by the VA to The Bay Citizen show that the agency knows more about veterans who have died than had been previously revealed. More than half of the 4,194 veterans died within two years of discharge, according to the records. Nearly 1,200 were receiving disability compensation for a mental health condition, the most common of which was post-traumatic stress disorder.
The median age was 31, with nearly 1,000 veterans dying before their 25th birthday.
Correction: Due to a data-input error, a previous version of the "Veteran Deaths vs. War Deaths" graph in this article incorrectly displayed 4,608 war deaths. There were 5,450; the graph has been corrected. Also, the article incorrectly stated that the Pentagon had reported eight deaths in Iraq in May 2010; it reported six.