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The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo.
The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. is shown in this undated file photo. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Every living former secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs is urging Congress to designate one day this year to reaching out to veterans who might be disconnected from others and at risk for suicide.

Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Elaine Luria, D-Va., introduced a resolution earlier this year to declare Sunday, Nov. 21, the first “National Warrior Call Day.” The resolution asks Americans — particularly active-duty service members and military retirees — to contact a veteran or service member and help connect them to support systems if they need them.

Seven former secretaries of the VA offered their support for the resolution Tuesday, asking lawmakers to pass it as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. With the frenzied U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, the project is even more urgent, they said.

“We recognize with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of even more troops, that such an awareness campaign is especially timely and a valuable nongovernment tool to put into action,” the secretaries wrote in an open letter.

Former secretaries Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson, James Peake, Eric Shinseki, Robert McDonald, David Shulkin and Robert Wilkie signed the letter. They wanted to grab the attention of congressional negotiators who are finalizing the NDAA for fiscal 2022, which begins Oct. 1.

The NDAA sets the Defense Department’s annual budget and includes policies for the Pentagon. It’s one of the only major bills that passes reliably through Congress each year, making it a desirable target for lawmakers to attach other measures. However, for the last several years, the bill has passed after the start of the fiscal year.

The Warrior Call is an initiative started by the Feherty’s Troops First Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Golf Channel broadcaster David Feherty. The project aims to encourage service members to reach out to fellow troops who might be isolated in the hopes that they can become reconnected.

“We recognize Warrior Call is no single solution to this complex issue, but greater connectivity will serve as a starting point for reaching vets and service members who don't raise their hands, who are suffering in silence and might be spiraling into an abyss,” said Frank Larkin and Leroy Petry, who run the initiative.

Petry is a 2011 recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, and Larkin is a former Navy SEAL and a former U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms. Larkin’s son Ryan, a Navy SEAL, died by suicide in 2017.

According to VA data released last month, 6,261 veterans died by suicide in 2019. There were fewer suicides than in 2018 and the fewest veteran suicides in a single year since 2007. However, suicide among veterans remains disproportionately high when compared to the rest of the U.S. population.

The suicide rate among active-duty service members increased in 2020, with 377 service members dying by suicide that year, according to the Defense Department. That’s up from 348 active-duty suicides in 2019.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has recently stoked concerns among advocates about the mental wellbeing of Afghanistan War veterans and active-duty troops who served there. In the weeks following the withdrawal, the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line experienced a 98% increase in the number of texts. Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line increased 7% and online chats increased by nearly 40% during the same time period.

VA officials said part of the surge in texts could be attributed to an increase in awareness of the hotline and the reduced stigma about utilizing the resource, as well as the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Many veterans who die by suicide haven’t had a recent interaction with the VA, data show. One goal of the Warrior Call is to connect veterans with VA services or other resources.

“As former secretaries of the Department of Veterans Affairs, we understand firsthand the challenges active-duty service members and veterans face and the need for their peers, friends, and family to lift them up,” the secretaries wrote. “It is not an overstatement to note that increasing connection within the military community and steering individuals to important resources will save lives.”

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