WASHINGTON - Women veterans who try to take their own lives are often successful at a far higher rate than their female non-veteran counterparts because of one reason: They use guns.

Female veterans die by suicide at nearly six times the rate of female civilians, such an alarming number that mental-health experts at the Department of Veterans Affairs say the agency is reaching out to former servicewomen to talk about gun safety.

Their suicide rate is also surprising because men generally are far more likely than women to die by suicide.

"One reason is that female veterans are more comfortable with firearms - it's part of the culture," said Caitlin Thompson, VA's deputy director for suicide prevention.

VA hospitals and clinics are offering free gun locks and education at every VA to ensure firearm safety, Thompson said. VA experts are also studying the many reasons why female veterans have such a higher risk for suicide attempts. One of those triggers, Thompson said, is sexual assault during military service, along with past traumatic experiences.

The suicide risk is highest in veterans age 18 to 29. In that age group, female veterans were nearly 12 times more likely than other women to take their lives, Thompson said.

"This is where we are doing the real outreach and everyone can make a difference," she said. She asked the public to reach out to all veterans, and women specifically, as part of the VA's awareness campaign The Power of 1. "One small act can change the life of a veteran," she said.

Veterans and their family members and friends can connect with VA responders 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling the toll-free hotline at 800-273-8255, and then pressing 1.

There's also a Veterans Call Center for women who have served: 1-855-VA-WOMEN (1-855-829-6636). They can also text the number 838255. Or chat online at www.veteranscrisisline.net/chat.