With over 300,000 members, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is the largest organization for former military members who have served since the September 11 attacks. Because of a dearth of accurate data regarding veterans’ concerns, IAVA launched a member survey back in 2012 asking about issues ranging from mental health care to the GI Bill.
With assistance from the RAND Corporation, IAVA issued a more comprehensive survey for 2014. Roughly 3,000 of its members responded to the survey, which took an hour to complete. Just 2,100 completed the entire questionnaire.
The results of the survey are largely disturbing. This small sampling represents only a fraction of veterans, yet paints a picture of a post-war population struggling with epidemics of suicide and mental illness. Forty percent of the respondents reported knowing at least one veteran who had committed suicide. Nearly half knew of an attempt.
If this is what we know from such a small slice of the population, what would a more comprehensive study reveal?
One of the key problems is lack of data. The Department of Veterans Affairs most recent report released in 2012 was based on state statistics, which is highly spotty. Only 34 states actually responded to the VA’s request for information on veterans’ suicides, and another 11 states and territories have only partially authorized usage of the numbers.
The IAVA survey was considered necessary due to a large gap in information that has been vague at best for many years. The VA did not start tracking veteran suicide rates until 1999, and its purview covers everything from states, territories, and even foreign countries, where immigrant veterans ended up returning home.
The statistics are grim enough, despite the ambiguity. Seventy percent of respondents who applied for a disability claim had to wait more than 120 days for a response. This does not include appeals, which can easily drag on for over two years. Fifty-three percent reported having a mental health injury, including 18% with traumatic brain injury and 44% with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even without medical confirmation, these kind of percentages are a disaster considering over 2.5 million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the most conservative interpretation of the data indicates a problem of massive scale. However, earlier this week, the Department of Defense released data that points to a 6% decrease in military suicides in 2013, a sign that perhaps efforts by both the government and nonprofit sectors to curb the rate of suicide are actually working.
The numbers are hardly all bad. Sixty-two percent of the survey reported using the GI Bill, and over three quarters rated the experience high, though over a third reported long wait times on payments to the university. Seventy-two percent of respondents reported satisfaction with their VA providers, compared to the 91% who were happy with their non-VA providers. The trend continues with 68 percent complaining of trouble getting a VA appointment, compared to 31 percent in the private sector.
"If you really want to know what post-9/11 vets think, read this survey,” said IAVA founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff. “We hope it will serve as a resource for all Americans who want to understand how our community really feels, and what we are facing."
Stephen Carlson served two tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division. He lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.