WASHINGTON — Broad action is needed from Congress and President Barack Obama to combat the growing problem of veterans suicide, a group representing veterans of recent wars declared Monday on Capitol Hill.
Officials from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, along with dozens of veteran leaders from around the country, are in Washington this week to roll out a laundry list of policy initiatives aimed at reducing what the group called “deplorable” rate of veterans taking their own lives. It’s an effort that IAVA says will top its agenda in 2014.
In a recent IAVA member survey, 47 percent of respondents said they knew an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who had attempted suicide. A study last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 22 veterans take their own lives each day.
“We want Congress, the President and everybody in America to understand that for this new veterans community, tackling suicide, combatting suicide is our No. 1 priority,” Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA founder and CEO said at a forum Monday. “We unveiled the policy agenda and we’re calling for omnibus legislation and a comprehensive executive order from President Obama to significantly reduce the number of suicides among veterans and servicemembers.”
Rieckhoff said he is hoping for legislators to introduce a sweeping bill later this week.
Among the initiatives the group proposed Monday:
- Extend coverage for PTSD care to 15 years from the current five years to allow veterans more time to seek care in case symptoms don’t emerge soon after they leave the military.
- Review discharges that might have resulted from mental health injuries, and upgrade wrongful discharges that make troops ineligible for many of the services and benefits that could help them recover.
- Create a standardized system to track and report suicides and suicide attempts among servicemembers, veterans and family members, while funding more research to identify those at risk.
- Push the Department of Defense and the VA to better coordinate the transition of troops out of the military, including establishment of a common electronic medical records system and a common drug formulary.
- Work to train and hire more mental health professionals — particularly psychiatrists, for whom there is a national shortage.
- Decriminalize suicide attempts to reduce the stigma of seeking help to deal with suicidal impulses.
- To ease fears about employability and security clearances, educate troops about recent changes aimed at protecting the privacy of those seeking mental health care.
- Promote voluntary gun safety programs for troops, while passing a law to ease troops’ Second Amendment concerns. The proposed law would prevent the VA from reporting mental health problems to the Department of Justice — potentially resulting in curtailment of gun ownership rights — without a court order.
- Establish prescription drug take-back programs at military bases and VA facilities to limit the supply of unneeded drugs that could later be used for a suicide attempt.
In addition to the press conference Monday, IAVA officials, veterans and supporters will be planting American flags on the National Mall in Washington on Thursday to draw attention to veteran suicide issues.
Many of the veterans who traveled to Washington this week for IAVA’s “Storm the Hill” effort have faced their own mental health issues or watched friends suffer or die after struggling with mental health issues.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Jim Reed, a certified registered nurse anesthetist who deployed nine times as a combat medic for U.S. Special Operations Command, said he told himself for years that PTSD wasn’t an issue. Finally, he said, he could no longer keep up the facade.
“I spent 1,500 days over there and when I came home, I wasn’t really home,” he said.
With a son in the infantry and a daughter preparing to attend West Point, Reed said he came to Washington to fight especially for better care for young troops. They often lack the supportive family and extensive medical education that motivated Reed admit his troubles.
“These young guys who are in combat—E-4s or E-5s like my son—they experience these things and come back and become self-destructive,” he said.
Retired Air Force Maj. Linda Stanley, who cared for patients at a trauma hospital in Balad, Iraq, said she buried herself in her work to stave off worsening effects of PTSD, including a growing emotional numbness.
“When you are on for 6 or 12 or 18 months, your adrenaline is pumping, and your body actually changes,” she said.
After leaving the Air Force, Stanley obtained a psychiatric nurse practitioner degree so she could work with veterans suffering mental health issues. She now works for the VA health care system in San Diego.
In 2012, a close friend who had just returned from a deployment in Iraq killed herself--“a complete shock,” Stanley said.
The coming years could see a wave of intense need from military members and veterans just beginning to feel the effects of invisible wounds from their years of service, she said.
“I am very concerned that as the war ends in Afghanistan in December, and as the military is cut, that we are going to be cutting mental health services,” she said. “And those are things we should be increasing right now."