PHOENIX (KSAZ) - According the latest statistics, on average, 20 U.S. veterans commit suicide every day.
In Arizona, the veteran suicide rate is significantly higher.
According to the VA, the overall veteran suicide rate in Arizona is significantly higher than the national rate, at 40%. Meanwhile, according to an ASU study, veterans in Arizona are nearly four times more likely to take their own lives, when compared to non-veterans.
Right now, however, there isn't an accurate count of veteran suicides. Agencies are not tracking them consistently, so lawmakers say they really don't know how bad the crisis is in the state.
Now, the family of an Army Ranger who took his own life three years ago is pushing for a new state law that would make his death, and the suicides of other vets in our state, count.
"You could look into those brown eyes of his, and it was like nothing was behind his head," said Margaret Smith, describing his son-in-law, U.S. Army Ranger Antoine Castaneda, in the days before he took his own life on his 32nd birthday, exactly three years ago.
"He sought help constantly through the Phoenix VA, and sometimes it took him 60 days," Smith said. "They sent him home with lots of pills."
Castaneda's family and friends support State Representative Jay Lawrence in taking the first step to better track and better treat suicidal veterans. State Rep. Lawrence is developing a bill that would require death certificates to specify whether a person was ever in the U.S. Armed Forces.
"They did not really know how many veterans were taking their own lives," said Smith. "It's a very sad situation because I do believe Antoine would've been saved had the VA listened to him. He was begging, asking to be put in a hospital."
VA staff members say it does keep track of veteran suicides, but declined to share its numbers. The VA says it's combining primary and mental health care, to remove the stigma of mental illness.
"Speaking with the veteran about getting care, letting know they'll be supported, 'you served us, let us help you', 'it is brave to ask for things', using language to help the person understand I didn't do anything wrong, I just need help," said Debbie Dominick, Chief of Social Work at Phoenix VA Hospital.
The Phoenix VA says it remains neutral on the proposed law.
Veterans Crisis Line
Confidential Veterans Chat: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/About/VeteranSuicide.aspx
Call: 1-800-273-8255 (press 2)
TTY Service: 1-800-799-4889
Veteran Suicide Prevention Resources