Lawmakers seek ways to combat the veteran suicide crisis in 2020
By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 14, 2020
This story is part of a Stars and Stripes special report on what's ahead for the U.S. military as a new decade begins. See all the stories here.
WASHINGTON — Sgt. Daniel Somers, 30, was an Iraq War veteran and California Army National Guardsman when he shot himself June 10, 2013. He left a suicide note, later published online, damning the VA system that he said had failed him.
His parents have spent the last six years as strong advocates for the well-being of returning soldiers and for PTSD awareness.
“When he would visit, I remember this one time he came downstairs and had an unlit cigarette in his hand and just kind of looked at me,” his mother, Jean Somers, told Stars and Stripes. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like he saw me but didn’t register his mom. It was kind of a vacant look in his eyes.”
His service in Iraq included more than 400 combat missions as a turret gunner on a Humvee, which left him with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and several medical issues. But his parents say he was never able to get high-quality mental health treatment from the VA.
“Is it any wonder then that the latest figures show 22 veterans killing themselves each day? That is more veterans than children killed at Sandy Hook — every single day,” Somers wrote in his suicide letter, which was published on gawker.com. “Why isn’t the president standing with those families at the state of the union? Perhaps because we were not killed by a single lunatic, but rather by his own system of dehumanization, neglect, and indifference.”
Somers’ parents say his last act was arranging for someone to be there to take care of his body.
“He went a block away from where he lived, used a gun and had someone call the police so they would be there so they could take care of what was left after he took his own life.”
Over 6,000 veterans commit suicide every year, and that number is growing, according to 2019 data from the VA.
The report includes data from 2017, the most recent available. There were 6,139 veteran suicide deaths in 2017, an increase of 129 from 2016.
“It’s one of our greatest tragedies,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the VA House committee, said. “With the number of suicides on active duty, if we had those kind of casualties in combat ... the country would be on fire.”
Most experts agree that tackling suicide is a monumental challenge. Despite efforts in Washington, the VA and the military, the problem has only gotten worse.
Lawmakers say they are looking into efforts to combat the veteran suicide crisis in 2020. In December, a House panel passed the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act, which awards federal funds to programs outside the VA that provide mental health care, saying more than half of veterans who end their own lives aren’t in the VA system.
Somers blamed the VA for not understanding his “repeated and severe brain injuries,” and not treating his symptoms.
“Perhaps, with the right medication at the right doses, I could have bought a couple of decent years,” he wrote in his final note. “But even that is too much to ask from a regime built upon the idea that suffering is noble and relief is just for the weak.”
In May, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced the Sgt. Daniel Somers Veterans Network of Support Act in Congress. If passed, it would require the DOD to create a pilot program for information sharing among relatives and friends designated by each service member — up to 10 people — on VA benefits and services.
“Troops leaving military service face confusing and complicated red tape when navigating their veterans benefits. Educating and empowering our veterans’ loved ones about the resources available will ensure veterans never feel alone and get the support and benefits they’ve earned,” said Sinema, a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Veterans Crisis Line, staffed 24 hours a day; 800-273-8255. Select “1” for a Veterans Affairs staffer. It is the same number used for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
En Español: 888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 800-799-4889.