The recent suicide of a Houston Marine who previously appeared in an anti-suicide public awareness campaign has shaken many veterans, some of whom question whether all efforts are being made to prevent retired soldiers from taking their lives.
Handsome and friendly, Clay Hunt, 28, so epitomized a vibrant Iraq veteran that he was selected to appear in a public service announcement encouraging returning soldiers to reach out for help should they feel isolated or experience other emotional struggles after combat.
The former Marine corporal earned a Purple Heart after taking a sniper's bullet in his left wrist four years ago. He then returned to combat in Afghanistan and later lobbied for veterans on Capitol Hill, road-biked with wounded veterans and performed humanitarian work in Haiti and Chile. Then, on March 31, Hunt bolted himself in his Houston apartment and shot himself.
Hunt's relatives say he was wracked with survivor's guilt, depression and post-traumatic stress. But as the suicide rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans stands at its highest level since 2004, two veteran organizations told FoxNews.com that until veterans are required to enroll in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, the full scope of the problem will never be known.
Roughly 50 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are registered with VA health care officials, a "much higher" figure than previous veteran groups, according to Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the nonprofit group that sponsored the public service ad featuring Hunt.
"That is a problem," he said. "That's kind of where it starts. There's no mechanism in place to keep track of them unless they go to the VA. That's one of the reasons we suspect the rate of suicides among veterans is a lot higher than what is reported."
Statistics obtained by FoxNews.com show the suicide rate of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in fiscal year 2008 -- the most recent data available -- was 38.2 deaths per 100,000 individuals, or more than 10 deaths higher than the previous year. In fiscal year 2003, the figure was 23.9 deaths, before reaching a high of 40.3 deaths in 2004.
"It's better than it was five years ago, but it's not where it needs to be," Tarantino said. "The scope of the problem is the first thing. But really, in an era of finite resources, we want to make sure that we are using all of our tools and services in the most efficient way possible."
Ryan Gallucci, a spokesman for AMVETS, a national veterans organization, agreed, calling on the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to better coordinate its health records.
"In order to stave off veteran suicides, we need to grasp the scope of the problem," Gallucci wrote in an email to FoxNews.com. "Clay Hunt's story is tragic. If a spokesman for veterans' issues can become a victim, then we're clearly not doing enough to understand and meet the needs of today's veterans."
While declining to discuss Hunt's death directly, VA officials told FoxNews.com that calls to its suicide hotline increased "significantly" last month and a new text messaging system will be launched this summer to allow veterans to use their smartphones to contact counselors directly.
"We now that this is a vulnerable population and we are putting enormous efforts into suicide prevention among the population," Dr. Antonette Zeiss, director of the VA's mental health services, told FoxNews.com on Thursday. "We're looking at something that is happening particularly among the younger men, and of course, that's a real concern to us. Every death by suicide is a tragedy."
Zeiss confirmed that just 50 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are enrolled in the VA's health care program, a figure she characterized as "remarkably successful" when compared to previous rates.
"We'll continue to expand our outreach efforts that we do, but this is a very high rate of usage," she said. "It's much higher than any time in the past."
But Dr. Janet Kemp, the VA's national mental health program director for suicide prevention, said enrollment in the program does not necessarily equate to care.
"Enrollment is just enrollment," Kemp said. "That does not in any way, shape or form guarantee that they're going to show up for care."
Zeiss and Kemp referred FoxNews.com to Department of Defense officials for questions about whether mandatory or automatic enrollment into the VA's health care system would improve the situation -- a proposal offered by Tarantino and Gallucci. A Defense spokeswoman did not return several messages seeking comment on the matter.
Meanwhile, Hunt's death has shaken many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Those who knew him wonder why someone who seemed to be doing all the right things to deal with combat-related issues is now dead.
"We know we have a problem with vets' suicide, but this was really a slap in the face," said Matthew Pelak, 32, an Iraq veteran who worked with Hunt in Haiti as part of the nonprofit group Team Rubicon.
Friends and family say Hunt suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But with his boundless energy and countless friends, he came across as an example of how to live life after combat.
Hunt's mother, Susan Selke, said after Hunt was wounded, she'd hoped her son would get out of the military. Instead, he went to school to be a scout-sniper and went to Afghanistan. He seemed to do well. He was honorably discharged in 2009, married and enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
He was frustrated by the Veterans Affairs Department's handling of his disability claim. He also piled up thousands of dollars in credit card debt as he waited for his GI Bill payments. Hunt found an outlet to help improve the system by doing work with IAVA. He helped build bikes for Ride 2 Recovery and participated in long rides.
Last year, Hunt's life took a downward spiral. His marriage ended, he dropped out of school and he began to have suicidal thoughts, his mother said. She said Hunt sought counseling from the VA and moved to California.
In recent months, Hunt returned to Houston to be closer to his family. Prior to taking his life late last month -- six years after enlisting in the Marines -- Hunt considered re-enlisting.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The Department of Veterans Affairs' Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached by calling (800) 273-TALK. As of Sept. 20, 2010, more than 330,000 calls had been received.