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Arizona lawmaker planning bill to mandate tracking of veteran suicides

Rep. Jay Lawrence at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on July 23, 2018. (KTAR Photo/Kathy Cline)

PHOENIX — A bill that would require the compilation of veteran suicide statistics could be introduced next session in the Arizona Legislature.

State Rep. Jay Lawrence — a Republican who chairs the House Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs Committee — hasn’t written the bill yet. In fact, he’s only submitted suggestions to the Arizona Legislative Council.

He does plan to have something ready for the coming legislative session.

As Lawrence envisions it: “[The bill would] require the state of Arizona to compile a report on veteran suicide and provide that report to the Legislature and the Department of Veterans Affairs beginning Jan. 1, 2020.”

“This will come before the committee,” he said during a news conference at the Capitol on Monday. “I guarantee you: It will be voted for, or I will eat some heads.”

“Before you can solve a problem, you’ve got to realize the extent of the problem,” said Mike Scerbo, spokesman for the family of Antouine Castaneda.

Castaneda — a decorated Army Ranger who signed up after 911 — took his life on his 32nd birthday, July 23, 2015.

Scerbo said one idea for legislation could be to require Arizona counties to check “veteran” (if applicable) and “suicide” on death certificates.

Margaret Smith, Castaneda’s mother-in-law, said he’d been refused inpatient treatment at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. He was urged to try pills instead, she said, although Castaneda insisted he was not well enough for outpatient treatment.

“His mind definitely was not there,” she remembered. “It’s so important that the VA gives our veterans a little bit better mental health care. Because they really deserve it.”

Smith said that however the data’s gathered, something has to happen for veterans who need mental health assistance.

“I do believe, in my heart, that Antouine could have been saved,” she said. “He leaves behind two beautiful daughters … it’s so hard because (they) ask Nana and Pops all the time, ‘If Daddy is up in heaven, what kind of floor is holding them up there? What is he walking on?’

“Sometimes when … they’re at my house, I just have to go in the bathroom and just put my face in a towel … because I start crying.”

A November 2017 study from Arizona State University found Arizona veterans were almost four times as likely to commit suicide as nonveterans.

The state currently tracks veteran suicides through the Arizona Violent Death Reporting System. It’s done through the Department of Health Services, the Centers for Disease Control and the Arizona State University Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

David Choate, director of the ASU center, said the statistics gathered aren’t as complete as they could be.

He said veteran status is reported by the families of the deceased, and it isn’t verified.

“The definition of ‘veteran’ can become a little convoluted,” Choate said.

In addition, Choate said the reports don’t differentiate between current and former military members.

“It would certainly make sense and behoove the state to draft the legislation where it leverages the existing resources well and then tries to find a good nuance to get to the answer to the question they really want,” Choate said.

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