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Posted: Jan 1, 2013 11:01 AM

Updated: Jan 1, 2013 11:01 AM

Austin American-Statesman. Dec. 27, 2010.

A necessary inquiry into veterans' deaths

A team of Austin American-Statesman reporters spent six months investigating how hundreds of Texas veterans have died since coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This month, more than two months after the results of the Statesman investigation were published, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it will study the deaths of veterans nationwide.

The VA's decision to begin its own inquiry into the deaths of the veterans it serves, past due but welcome nonetheless, corrects the government's failure to fully track the causes of death of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. We hope the effort to compile a comprehensive study of veterans' deaths leads to a more complete picture of veterans' struggles as they readjust to civilian life, and that a better understanding of those struggles will help prevent so many tragically early deaths.

The three-day American-Statesman series, "Uncounted Casualties," began with reporters Brenda Bell, Eric Dexheimer, Dave Harmon, Tony Plohetski, Jeremy Schwartz, database editor Christian McDonald, and visual reporters Jay Janner and Kelly West trying to fill out the incomplete death records of 345 Texas veterans who died between January 2003 and October 2011 after coming home from overseas.

By matching the fragmentary records provided by the VA with reports from other agencies, local obituaries and other public documents, the team was able to determine the causes of death for 266 Texans who returned home from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The team's findings bear repeating:

. The 345 Texas veterans identified by the VA as having died since returning from Iraq or Afghanistan is equal to nearly two-thirds of the state's casualties in the two wars.

. More than one in three died from a drug overdose, a fatal combination of drugs or suicide. The median age at death was 28.

. Nearly one in five died in a motor vehicle crash.

. Among those with a primary diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, 80 percent died of overdose, suicide or single-vehicle crashes. Only two of the 46 Texas veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with a PTSD diagnosis died of natural causes.

The number of deaths includes veterans who have sought VA benefits. The fate of veterans who aren't enrolled with the VA is unknown.

The American-Statesman study found that nearly as many Texas veterans are dying of prescription-drug overdoses as are dying of suicide. The high number of veteran suicides properly has received a great deal of attention over the past five or six years, but a recurring theme in the death of many of the Texas veterans examined by the Statesman is an apparent lack of coordination in prescribing powerful painkillers.

Prescriptions of painkillers by VA doctors have increased dramatically over the past decade. This increase has coincided with a growing body of evidence pointing to the dangers of putting veterans who suffer from PTSD on painkillers. Prescription drugs may ease the pain for veterans haunted by their experiences, but as we noted previously, we can't allow the painkillers to accomplish what enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan could not.

In addition to the VA's inquiry into veterans' deaths, the American-Statesman's "Uncounted Casualties" series has motivated members of Congress and the Texas Legislature to promise hearings and legislation to better address the needs of veterans home from war.

Strengthening communication and sharing of information between the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs should get a look. Programs that better prepare troops on the verge of leaving the military for their re-entry into civilian society should be expanded.

More than empty words about honoring veterans are needed above all else. Without action, and improved funding, too many veterans will return home with death trailing behind.

Wichita Falls Times Record News. Dec. 28, 2012.

Give to Newtown only in theory

Ever since the lives of 20 young children and six educators were gunned down in Newtown, Conn., a nation has felt compelled to do something.

Anything.

The urge to do something goes beyond demands for gun control. That prospect has gotten a little sticky of late, and gun advocates and safety proponents bump against each other. Americans in their collective grief for people we don't even know tugs at our heart strings and our pocketbooks.

The outpouring of support after the Dec. 14 killings is evidenced at makeshift memorials outside of the school, in the main part of town and in warehouses full of donated items. Teddy bears, Barbie dolls, soccer balls tens of thousands of items, according to The Associated Press, have been sent from all corners of the world as gestures start to pile up.

So overwhelmed, that Newtown officials have asked all of us to stop. Stop sending gifts.

On Wednesday, officials expressed in a statement their gratitude for the outpouring of sympathy, but they have "warehouses full of items" yet to be processed.

Instead of sending items at will, officials have asked us to "contact the receiving organization first to determine whether it wishes the donation, and is prepared to receive it. Certain groups, including town and Board of Education offices, may wish to have you hold or send your donation elsewhere, to a central processing point, for instance. Please do not send perishable goods any longer, except at specific request. There is no way to distribute them in a timely fashion."

Your gift, in other words, could cause more heartache for a town gripped by grief each item, the statement pointed out, must undergo some level of inspection by law enforcement before being distributed. The last thing we'd want is to burden the law enforcement community of Newtown further.

Not every item will be placed in a child's hands or a grieving family's possession.

"The thousands of flowers, letters, prayers, signs and photos, teddy bears and more, will be gathered and processed into soil that will serve in the foundation of a future permanent memorial to honor the slain children and adults," First Selectman Pat Llodra said. "This will be sacred soil, holding all the sweet messages and symbols of love and hope, of kindness and sadness, visions for a better future, and promises to forever remember the ones lost in this sad attack."

But we want to do something. Still, two weeks after this massacre, many Americans still want to send their support.

Consider the United Way, officials said, which uses none of the money designated for Newtown for administrative purposes. You can send to the Newtown Savings Bank, where 100 percent of the funds collected remain intact. A charitable entity, the AP reported, will be formed by local officials to determine how the funds are distributed.

The United Way of Western Connecticut announced Wednesday that $3.5 million had been collected.

You can still do something.

If you feel the need to send a stuffed animal, give it to a child you know personally. And tell that child you know about the angels from Newtown.

The Dallas Morning News. Dec. 28, 2012.

We need better, smarter gun laws

Despite the horrors of Newtown, Aurora, Tucson and other all-too-common scenes of mass murders, Americans remain sharply split on gun-safety regulations, a predictable divide given the Second Amendment and this country's strong firearms history.

But after the massacre at the Connecticut elementary school, a Gallup Poll found that 58 percent of Americans surveyed now favor tougher laws on the sale of firearms, the highest support measured by Gallup since 2004.

That's welcome evidence that this newspaper hopes will motivate Congress into constructive action. Americans are weary of the endless string of heart-wrenching killings in schools, in movie theaters, in grocery store parking lots. Washington has the power, but not yet the will, to take sensible steps to fight back, for instance, enacting a tough ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and requiring more rigorous background checks of prospective buyers at gun shows.

The debate over whether private citizens should own military-style assault weapons does not break down along predictable conservative-liberal lines. Ronald Reagan, who as president signed legislation in 1986 to ease gun restrictions, later reversed course and joined with former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to help pass an assault-weapons ban in 1994. Since Reagan, every president has promised to support such a ban. Even conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has noted that the Second Amendment leaves room for gun-control legislation.

Congress, which let the assault-weapons ban expire in 2004, remains the weak link in gun-safety efforts.

Some will argue that the ban did not reduce overall crime, since most street crime is not committed with assault weapons. But that line of reasoning overlooks a key fact: This nation leaves its citizens vulnerable to continued mass acts of violence until it turns off the spigot on easy access to the most powerful weapons. At the very least, stronger gun laws would help police officers do their jobs more safely.

A new and improved assault-weapons ban should not be misconstrued as an attack on hunting rifles and small firearms. Nor is it a call to round up weapons that people already own; that would be unconstitutional and impractical. It is, however, a common-sense approach to restrict access to the most deadly weaponry, high-capacity magazines and perhaps even high-caliber ammunition that can take dozens of lives in a matter of seconds. Likewise, Congress should insist on tough enforcement of laws to hold straw purchasers liable for guns used in crimes.

We are naive if we expect to eradicate all gun violence, but we're irresponsible if we don't take gun violence more seriously and act more aggressively than we have in the past.

Victoria Advocate. Dec. 30, 2012.

Texting behind wheel is deadly behavior

Driving is a delicate task that requires concentration. Every time a driver turns the key, he or she needs to be alert to ensure his or her safety as well as the safety of those around them.

In today's world of instant communication and gratification, many drivers forget this need to be cautious and choose to be distracted, whether it's tuning the radio, using their cell phones or a myriad of other reasons to take their eyes off the road.

That's why we are glad to see the Texas Legislature plan to consider Senate Bill 28, which would make Texas one of 40 states to ban text-based communication while operating a vehicle.

Distracted driving accounted for 100,000 crashes in Texas in 2009. That number is a frightening statistic. Every day, millions of drivers take to the streets in their vehicles going to and from work, the grocery store or any number of destinations. With so many people zipping back and forth along Texas' roads and highways, it is imperative that drivers take the extra effort to pay attention at all times. Just a moment of distraction could be all it takes to spark a horrendous wreck.

Because of the dangers presented by multiple people speeding down the road in vehicles weighing tons constructed of metal, glass and plastic, we are glad to see this bill on the state legislature's agenda.

This situation is such a widespread problem that countries across the globe are using everything from laws to television commercials to show the negative impact and dangers of texting and driving. In Great Britain, a controversy erupted over a graphic commercial showing a fatal wreck involving three teenage girls after the driver caused a wreck while texting. While the images shown were shocking, these situations are showing up more and more on roads around the world as cell phones and texting plans become universally available.

We encourage the Legislature to take a good look at this bill. We hope it will bring more safety on Texas' roads. There are already some laws in place that limit distractions involving cell phones, such as banning their use in school zones, but we believe more can be done to ensure our roads can be safer places for drivers.

We often hope people will have enough common sense to know when they are being distracted and pull over to tend to their phones. But common sense seems to be in short supply in today's world, so unfortunately, the law must step up to protect people on Texas' roadways.

San Angelo Standard-Times. Dec. 29, 2012.

Lack of familiarity hampers Congress

'Tis the season for departing members of Congress to make their final statements about what they've learned and what they regret most.

A remarkable number of legislators are departing at the end of this session. According to Roll Call, which keeps tabs on the 535 members of the Senate and House for the two-year term that ends this month, a whopping 221 legislators retired, resigned, were defeated or changed jobs. Two died.

Among those who are leaving, willingly or unwillingly, the unfailing theme is sadness over the loss of civility and courtliness in Congress. Because of the demands of travel and fundraising, House and Senate members arrive in Washington on Tuesdays and leave on Thursdays. That means very few of them socialize on weekends or even know their colleagues' families, hobbies, backgrounds and interests.

Ironically, candidates and their backers spent more than $3 billion trying to win House and Senate seats this year. The exact amount won't be available until all the bookkeeping is done. But we already know one Senate race in Massachusetts cost at least $85 million. The Senate race in Virginia cost $81 million.

This is a lose-lose situation. The more money that is spent, the more that is required and the more time legislators spend raising money instead of enjoying their jobs.

We think the House and Senate leaders should consider instituting monthly barbecues or picnics or other get-togethers, and then lean on members to attend. Spending face time with co-workers works for most of the rest of us. Why not Congress?

Topics: Texas Editorial Roundup

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