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Top Military Health Stories Of 2013

How did the physical and mental health of service members and veterans fare in 2013? I can't answer that question with a single statement, but I have compiled a list of topics and stories that I hope will give you some insight. I've chosen these because they consistently generated headlines or provided readers with new information or rare access. I want to hear your recommendations as well. If there's a story you feel deserves a top spot, share it in the comments. Sexual Assault in the Ranks: From data showing an increase in the number of incidents to major legislative reform, the subject of military sexual assault frequently made headlines this year. One of the best pieces I read on this subject was Rolling Stone's “The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer,” which provided a disturbing account of one woman's attempt to hold her attacker responsible. The military is working in myriad ways to address the problem, and I reported on an aspect of those efforts with my NBC News piece about training investigators and law enforcement in a new technique that incorporates lessons from the neurobiology of trauma. Troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs: The agency came under immense scrutiny and criticism this year for its backlog of benefit claims, which was meticulously reported by Aaron Glantz at the Center for Investigative Reporting. The long delays were so shocking that they became the subject of a New York Times editorial and a Daily Show series. While the backlog has improved in recent months (see the stats here), the VA is dealing with other significant problems, including questionable bonuses for executives and patient deaths at Pittsburgh and Atlanta VA hospitals. The War At Home: There has been some terrific reporting this year on the battle that combat veterans face when they return home. David Finkel's book, Thank You For Your Service, offered portraits of several soldiers as they tried, sometimes in vain, to find some sense of normalcy. I interviewed him here, and an excerpt of his book was published in the New Yorker here. The death of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle at the hands of a troubled veteran was one of the year's most tragic stories about military mental health. The New Yorker’s feature on Kyle's death is a gripping account that you must read. Administrative Discharges: For some time, soldiers and their advocates have alleged that service members are improperly discharged for misconduct that can be traced back to psychological or physical combat injuries. The Colorado Springs Gazette did an incredible job of documenting this practice at Fort Carson in its "Other Than Honorable" series. The National Defense Authorization Act contained a provision that would create a commission to explore these allegations, but it was stripped from the legislation at the last minute, which I wrote about here. Healing Combat Trauma in Theater: Stars and Stripes contributor Martin Kuz, who is a friend, wrote a unique and important series on healing "present-traumatic stress" for service members in Afghanistan. His pieces gave readers an intimate look at the effects of trauma and what can be done to alleviate symptoms before soldiers come home. Kuz listened to service members talk about their grief and pain together, and it's this kind of rare access that really helps civilians understand the trials of men and women who live in a combat zone. I highly recommend his latest piece about how one squad dealt with the death of a young soldier. Military Suicide: The suicide rate is expected to decrease in 2013 compared to last year, according to Defense Department data, but we still don't understand the relationship between suicide and deployment or how to effectively prevent veterans from dying by suicide. This came into focus with the release of a Journal of the American Medical Association study indicating that combat deployment is not a risk factor for suicide. A subsequent series of letters to the editor debated the accuracy of that finding. I expect this conversation to continue in 2014 as additional studies are published. Beyond the science of this question, there were some moving pieces about military suicide, including a first-person account of a suicide attempt written by Thomas James Brennan, a retired Marine Corps sergeant. I also recommend reading this New York Times blog post by the parents of a Daniel Somers, a veteran who died by suicide and left a note about his struggle that went viral. You can read my Al Jazeera America stories about a father who investigated his son's suicide here and the Marine Corps psychological autopsy program here. There were plenty of other stories that I found important and newsworthy, including a report suggesting that a malaria drug may have played a role in the Sgt. Bales murder case, and the FDA's new black box warning for that medication; the Wall Street Journal’s impressive investigative reporting on how veterans were lobotomized by the government years ago; The Verge’s comprehensive and beautifully presented piece on the health risks of burn pits; and the controversy around Gulf War Illness research as well as promising new findings about how to treat that condition.