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Why is the female veteran suicide rate spiking? Could it be AI?

by Aaron Glantz May 27, 2024

This article was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on May 27, 2024. Subscribe here.


Warning: This newsletter contains references to suicide throughout.


Why did the suicide rate for female veterans spike 24% in the most recent U.S. government report? That’s the question we wanted to answer. 

Experts pointed to a wide range of factors — the high rate of sexual trauma experienced by women in the military, pregnancy, menopause, intimate partner violence and the elevated prevalence of firearm ownership among female veterans compared to women who never donned the uniform. The problem was that all these factors were of long standing. They could not account for the increase.

Then, we learned of a new artificial intelligence (AI) program that the Department of Veterans Affairs developed to guide outreach to veterans “with the highest statistical risk for suicide.” The head of the VA’s healthcare system had touted it as a “game changer” in a recent Congressional hearing.

We dug in — and learned something female veterans, their advocates and leading AI experts said was extremely disturbing. The VA’s algorithm prioritizes white man and ignores survivors of sexual violence, which the agency’s own researchers say is a suicide risk for women.

Former Air Force staff sergeant Paulette Yazzie, poses for a selfie during a 2012 deployment to Iraq (Courtesy Paulette Yazzie)

“It was difficult enough to be a woman in the military. We get harassed; we get bullied,” said Paulette Yazzie, a 45-year-old Air Force veteran from the Navajo Nation. She served 13 years in the military, including a tour in Iraq. “Now we’re being pushed to the back — again,” she said.

You can read our complete story here, and also on the websites of Military Times and Miltiary.com, where it is being widely read by veterans and decision-makers on military matters. I also appeared on NPR’s Here & Now program Thursday, broadcast nationally on more than 500 stations.

The program we investigated, REACH VET, is one of more than 100 new artificial intelligence programs developed by the VA. We’ll continue to follow this story as it develops and scrutinize other government initiatives that leverage technology for bias… Stay tuned!

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