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Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, led an effort by a group of senators to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs to reach out to veterans and offer mental health resources to them in the wake of the invasion. Ernst, an Iraq War veteran, said the disturbing images coming out of the Russian invasion could be troubling for U.S. veterans who served in Vietnam and the post-9/11 wars. 

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, led an effort by a group of senators to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs to reach out to veterans and offer mental health resources to them in the wake of the invasion. Ernst, an Iraq War veteran, said the disturbing images coming out of the Russian invasion could be troubling for U.S. veterans who served in Vietnam and the post-9/11 wars.  (Zachary Hada/U.S. Air Force photo illustration)

WASHINGTON — A group of senators expressed concern Thursday about the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the mental health of American veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, led an effort to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs to reach out to veterans and offer mental health resources to them in the wake of the invasion. Ernst, an Iraq War veteran, said the disturbing images coming out of the invasion could be troubling for veterans who served in Vietnam and the post-9/11 wars.

Ernst and eight other senators signed a letter requesting the VA intervene.

“As you know, images of the invasion of Ukraine have been widespread in the news and on social media,” the letter states. “As veterans who have been exposed to life-threatening and dangerous experiences view these images, it is critical that the VA ensure they receive the appropriate support.”

Russia launched a large-scale invasion into Ukraine, its neighbor to the southwest, on Feb. 24. Ukrainian officials said more than 2,000 civilians had died as of Thursday, one week after the attacks began.

Ernst applauded the VA’s outreach to veterans following America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer, and she said a similar effort was needed now.

Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line had increased 7% and online chats increased by nearly 40% during the last two weeks of August, the VA said. The department attributed the increase to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, as well as the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

At the time, the VA encouraged veterans to seek mental health care. The department said it sent millions of emails, posted blogs, and held town hall meetings and support groups.

“It’s entirely natural to feel a range of emotions about the latest developments in Afghanistan — and if you are feeling depressed, angry, heartbroken, or anything else, we at VA are here for you,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said at the time.

The VA did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about whether there had been any increase in calls or chats to the Veterans Crisis Line because of the invasion of Ukraine.

It was not evident that the department had started reaching out to veterans about the conflict.

“We appreciated the VA’s efforts to distribute information about mental health resources following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “As veterans once again observe images of violence, we urge the VA to conduct a more comprehensive outreach campaign to ensure veterans receive detailed information about supports available, including for PTSD, and are connected to community-based support systems.”

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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