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VA secretary fights notion that government shutdown could lead to veteran suicides

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie prepares to testify prior to the start of a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 14, 2019

WASHINGTON — The secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs is rebuking the idea that the partial government shutdown, now stretching into its fourth week, could lead to suicides among veterans who are affected by it.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter Monday to J. David Cox, the president of American Federation of Government Employees, calling the notion “preposterous.” He sent it in response to members of AFGE, a federal union, citing concerns about the financial instability created by the shutdown leading to mental health problems for veterans, and possibly suicides.

“You should know how harmful this stereotype is to veterans,” Wilkie wrote. “That is why I was surprised and disappointed to see one of the [AFGE] presidents pushing the ‘veteran as victim’ myth and going so far as to exploit the real tragedy of veteran suicide to make political arguments about the partial government shutdown.”

Wilkie specifically referred to Ed Canales, an Army veteran who retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and is now a veteran liaison officer with AFGE. Canales represents veterans working in all Bureau of Prisons facilities west of the Mississippi River.

Last week, Canales told Stars and Stripes he was worried about the mental health of the corrections officers who are working without pay during the shutdown. Canales said he had referred three veterans to the Veterans Crisis Line and in one case drove to a worker’s home to ensure he was OK.

“I pray every day I don’t get that phone call from any of my people that they lost a vet because of the hardships being brought upon them,” Canales said.

Based on data from the Office of Personnel Management, veterans make up about 31 percent of the federal workforce. About 155,000 veterans work at the agencies affected by the shutdown, and of those veterans, nearly 50,000 have a VA disability rating, the data shows.

Because they received advance appropriations, the VA and Defense Department are not directly affected by the shutdown. The departments with the highest number of veterans affected by the shutdown are Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and Department of Transportation.

Canales told ABC News on Wednesday, “If this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We’re going to have suicides.”

Wilkie called the comments “disgraceful,” “reckless” and said Canales was using veterans as political pawns. He asked Cox for a public apology and “to outline the steps you plan to take to ensure AFGE leaders demonstrate proper respect for our nation’s heroes.”

Cox responded Monday to Wilkie’s letter, criticizing President Donald Trump’s administration for leaving veterans employed by the federal government “out in the cold.”

“Financial pressures experienced by working people are apparently not something this administration either understands or cares about,” Cox said in a statement.

Heather O’Beirne Kelly, the director of military and veterans health policy with the American Psychological Association, argued Monday it wasn’t wrong to point out veterans, as well as others, are at heightened risk for self-harm when facing economic hardship. Negative life-stressors, such as divorce, loss of a job and financial instability, are correlated with death by suicide, she said.

The unions were being “proactive,” Kelly said, and Wilkie’s criticism was “not in line with his department’s public health approach to veteran suicide prevention, in which we recognize we need to attend to negative life-stressors before they become crises…It doesn’t mean we think they’re fragile, that all veterans are victims.”

William Attig, executive director of the Union Veterans Council, part of the American Federation of Labor, told Stars and Stripes last week that he was worried about the mental health of veterans dealing with effects of the shutdown. Attig began receiving emails and calls the day after the shutdown began, and he’s since heard hundreds of stories from veterans either already financially struggling or worried they will be soon, he said.

Many federal workers missed their first paychecks Friday.

“The words ‘stress,’ ‘anxiety,’ ‘hopelessness,’ feeling betrayed – that’s what we’re hearing from our members,” Attig said.

The warnings about veterans' mental health during the shutdown wasn't hyperbole, he insisted.

"I truly believe in the reality that I’m talking about, and that comes from the hundreds of emails and the sound and tone coming from our community. It seems like [Wilkie is] completely deaf to that,” Attig said. “I’m frankly appalled.”

In his letter, Wilkie cited statistics about veterans volunteering and voting at higher rates than the rest of the population. He also noted the veteran unemployment rate is consistently lower than the national average.

“It’s not mutually exclusive to be a brilliant civic asset capable of leading military teams and integrating well into society, and when experiencing financial hardship to deal with stress,” Kelly argued.

She has been encouraging people to do “buddy checks” on veterans, as well as anybody else, affected by the shutdown.

“Sweep in with money, food and attention, because people don’t ask,” Kelly said.
The shutdown reached its 24th day Monday and is now the longest in U.S. history. Veterans organizations plan to gather in Washington on Tuesday to highlight the effects of the shutdown on veterans and the U.S. Coast Guard.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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