• August 22, 2014

Death rate unusually high for young veterans

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Posted: Wednesday, January 1, 2014 4:30 am

LOS ANGELES — Mark Tyree was chasing death.

The 25-year-old Marine veteran drank heavily and drove fast — often at the same time. Tyree walked away from two serious accidents that demolished his cars.

On a foggy November morning in 2011, he slammed his pickup truck into a power pole, became tangled in a power line and was electrocuted to death.

“He was so reckless at times,” said his father, Mark Tyree Sr. “He had no fear whatsoever.”

Tyree belonged to a generation of young veterans whose return to civilian life has been marked by an unusually high death rate, primarily boosted by accidents and suicides.

The death rate for California veterans under 35 surpasses that of both active-duty service members and other civilians of the same ages, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of state mortality records.

Scattered across the state, the veterans’ deaths — 1,253 men and 110 women between 2006 and 2011 — are barely noticed in the mayhem of modern life.

A 27-year-old in San Diego crashes his motorcycle at 100 mph while drunk. A 32-year-old hooked on heroin overdoses in a restaurant bathroom in Tarzana. A 28-year-old in Humboldt County shoots himself in the head in front of his best friend.

When viewed together, however, patterns emerge.

Veterans were more than twice as likely as other civilians to commit suicide. They were twice as likely to be a victim of a fatal motor vehicle crash and a quarter more likely to suffer other deadly accidents.

Tracking lives and deaths

The phenomenon has been largely unstudied by the government, which has concentrated its research on active-duty service members.

Researchers say the government now needs to systematically track the lives and deaths of veterans to understand the long-term effect of the wars in the Middle East.

“These are young, skilled people,” said Michael Schoenbaum, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health who studies mortality patterns in the Army. “They have families. They served their country. We have an obligation to their well-being.”

In peace time, young veterans have a relatively low mortality rate, thanks to the “healthy soldier effect” — a phenomenon that springs from the military’s recruitment of the strong and rejection of those with physical and mental problems.

In the wake of war, however, researchers have noticed increases in certain types of death.

In 1987, a government study found that veterans who served in Vietnam were 62 percent more likely to die during their first five years as civilians than other veterans of the same era who did not serve there. Motor vehicle accidents, suicides and drug overdoses were the major reasons for the disparity.

Researchers found a similar pattern in the six years after the 1991 Gulf War, noting that rates of fatal motor vehicle crashes were 19 percent higher for veterans who had been deployed there than for those who had not.

To look at the fates of the latest veterans, The Times analyzed data covering all 42,734 deaths of adults under 35 between 2006 and 2011 in California, home to more veterans than any other state. The analysis adjusted for demographic differences between veterans and civilians to ensure a relevant comparison.

Among the veteran deaths, there were 160 suicides by firearms, 99 suicides by hanging, 127 motorcycle accidents and 212 other motor vehicle crashes, 136 accidental drug overdoses and 25 drownings.

Death rate may fade

The analysis found that suicide, a vexing epidemic in the military over the last several years, is an even bigger problem after service.

Some of the same factors behind the suicide rate could also be driving accidental deaths. Researchers believe an underlying state of mind increases the odds of both types of death.

“There’s a fine line between self-directed violence and ambivalence for life,” said Robert Bossarte, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester and a suicide expert for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In some cases, accidents may be suicides that were misclassified — drug overdoses and solo car crashes can be difficult to classify without clear evidence of intent.

In the long term, the death rate may simply fade on its own. In studies of veterans from Vietnam and the Gulf War, researchers found that after several years their death rates were normal.

But each war is different.

Iraq and Afghanistan were the first protracted wars that the U.S. fought with an all-volunteer military. Troops faced multiple deployments. Many returned with severe injuries that would have been fatal in earlier eras.

It could take decades to realize and understand the full effects of the wars.

“Some questions are going to be incredibly difficult to answer,” Bossarte said.

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