What’s the biggest threat to a soldier: suicide or war?

It was just another quip from an official in an otherwise typical dog-and-pony show. Peter Rogoff, the head of the Federal Transit Administration, was in St. Paul on Wednesday to drop some money on the state for expanding transit options for returning veterans.

Then he said this:

“Our fighting men and women are more likely to die of suicide after they return home than they are in the battlefield overseas. That means the battle for the lives of our American servicemen and women are being fought right here at home.”

That’s a shocking and sobering assertion that certainly made me sit up and listen to a story I otherwise might have ignored. Is it true? It’s difficult to say. Are we talking about all living veterans or just the ones who went to Iraq or Afghanistan? Over what time frame? A soldier was more likely to die in Iraq, for example, in 2008 than in 2011.

Army Times reported that there were “1,621 suicide attempts by men and 247 by women who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.” But only 94 were successful. Presumably, the number of Iraq/Afghanistan veterans was higher than the number of people actually serving in Iraq/Afghanistan at that time. Three-hundred-seventeen U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan alone in 2009. Another 150 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in 2009.

That’s 467 deaths in the war in 2009. That’s certainly much lower than the number of suicide attempts reported by the Veterans Administration during that period — 6,570 — but it’s far more than the number of people who actually took their own lives.

Over a longer period, 1995 to 2007, there were almost 2,200 suicides of active duty soldiers, according to CBS News. That’s That averages about 120 a year. In 2004, that many soldiers — and more — were killed in just one month twice. And that’s just Iraq.

In a paper published just last month, the Army Public Health Department reported the increasing soldier suicide rate of 22 per 100,000 in 2009 –– a figure that had risen from 9 per 100,000 earlier in the decade. That’s a rate that appears to be lower than the rate at which soldiers were being killed in the wars, especially since about one-third of the military personnel who kill themselves, have never been deployed to a war zone.

It is true that last year more soldiers died from suicide than war, but that still doesn’t necessarily suggest the rate of suicide was higher.

Asked about the information for Mr. Rogoff’s assertion, a spokesman for the Federal Transit Administration said he was attempting to locate the source.

There’s no question at all that suicide among veterans is a growing problem and one that deserves all the attention it can receive. Reconnecting soldiers with their community, even if it’s just improving transportation options, is certainly an important and acknowledged part of preventing suicide. At the same time, there’s no real indication that the biggest threat to a service member’s life isn’t a war zone.

At least, not quite yet. But if you’re aware of data that says otherwise, I’d be grateful if you’d post it here.

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