Reporter FOIA’s database further exposing the toll war takes on returning vets

Writing for the Bay Citizen and The New York Times, Aaron Glantz brings a new, data-based take on the mental and physical toll the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on returning veterans, thanks to what he calls “an obscure government database called the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem death file,” which he obtained via FOIA.

The database, which reveals a high rate of suicide and fatally risky behavior, lists all veterans who earned Veterans Affairs benefits since 1973.

Records from that database, provided to The Bay Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the VA is aware of 4,194 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military. More than half died within two years of discharge. Nearly 1,200 were receiving disability compensation for a mental health condition, the most common of which was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Names were redacted, but Glantz nonetheless managed to identify a number of veterans, including a troubled 26-year-old man who threw himself under a train just three days after being turned away by the VA. In the course of his investigation, Glantz has managed to fill in some of the gaps in the federal records, a process which has shown just how lacking the VA’s data can be.

In October, The Bay Citizen, using public health records, reported that 1,000 California veterans under 35 died from 2005 to 2008 — three times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. At the time, the VA said it did not keep track of the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military.

The VA database does not include veterans who never applied for benefits or who were not receiving benefits at the time of their death, according to the agency. The VA said it also did not keep track of the cause of death.

When confronted with his agency’s shortcomings, a VA representative responded in a manner that belied his agency’s lack of focus on recordkeeping.

David Bayard, a VA spokesman, said the agency was working hard to treat veterans with mental health issues. “VA has some pretty fine programs,” Mr. Bayard said, “but unfortunately we aren’t always successful.”

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