As Senate Confirms New VA Secretary, Arizonans Talk About Veteran Suicide

Published: Monday, July 23, 2018 - 6:20pm
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2018 - 8:52am
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Margaret Smith (left) is the mother-in-law of Antouine Castaneda, a former U.S. Army Ranger who took his own life in 2015. She spoke along with family friend Emily Aiton at the state Capitol on July 23, 2018.
Bret Jaspers/KJZZ
Arizona State Rep. Jay Lawrence.

The U.S. Senate confirmed a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs on Monday — Robert Wilkie. Wilkie takes over an agency roiling from a purge of high level staff, according to a report last week in the Washington Post.

Some Arizona lawmakers and advocates, meanwhile, took the opportunity of a change in leadership to push for better statistics of suicide among vets. They want the state to require counties to collect veteran information upon death.

A Sad Anniversary

Antouine Castaneda’s mother-in-law believes he would still be alive if the Phoenix VA hospital had admitted him three years ago.

“He was begging, asking to be put into the hospital, and it was just, you know, ‘come back and see us and try these pills,’” Margaret Smith said at a press conference Monday at the state Capitol. “He couldn’t handle it anymore and the demons took over and he ended his life.”

Now, Smith and other advocates are pushing for a new law.

It would require people who sign death certificates in Arizona to identify when the deceased person is a veteran. The proposal would also make the state compile an annual count of veteran suicides and give it to the Department of Veterans Affairs, starting January 1, 2020.

Referring to the proposal, state Rep. Jay Lawrence (R-LD23) said, “I guarantee you it will be voted for, or I will beat some heads. It will happen in our committee.”

Lawrence is the chairman of the House Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs Committee.

Defining The Problem

Supporters say providing reliable statistics to policymakers is a first step toward getting more mental health services for veterans.

A study from Arizona State University looking at veteran suicide in 2016 showed a much higher rate of suicide among veterans than non-veterans in the state.

In an interview, Phoenix VA hospital officials said they do track and record suicides that are reported to them. But because some veterans are not patients at the VA, the hospital’s own tally is not the most reliable representation of veteran suicides. Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can take two years or longer to come out.

Debbie Dominick at the Phoenix VA couldn’t speak to Castaneda’s specific case, but said the most important thing is for vets or their families to call, text or walk-in.

“We’re trying to reach out to veterans and say, hey, we’re here for you. Come on in and get care,” she said.

In addition to walking into the Phoenix VA hospital, vets can text a message to 838255 or call 1-800-273-8255 and when prompted press “1” for veterans. They can also go to the website

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