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Thousands of American flags filled a grassy expanse on the National Mall on Wednesday morning, each of them representing a veteran or a servicemember who died by suicide in 2018.

Thousands of American flags filled a grassy expanse on the National Mall on Wednesday morning, each of them representing a veteran or a servicemember who died by suicide in 2018. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)

Thousands of American flags filled a grassy expanse on the National Mall on Wednesday morning, each of them representing a veteran or a servicemember who died by suicide in 2018.

Thousands of American flags filled a grassy expanse on the National Mall on Wednesday morning, each of them representing a veteran or a servicemember who died by suicide in 2018. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)

“County Veteran Service Offices are on the front lines every day working to combat this tragic crisis,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., shown here in a 2015 press conference, said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will support their efforts to provide needed services and solutions for our veterans that will improve their health and well-being.”

“County Veteran Service Offices are on the front lines every day working to combat this tragic crisis,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., shown here in a 2015 press conference, said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will support their efforts to provide needed services and solutions for our veterans that will improve their health and well-being.” (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Four senators introduced a measure Wednesday that would give $250 million in federal funding over the next five years to local government employees responsible for helping veterans process claims for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.

Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., backed the bill as a method to combat veteran suicide.

County Veteran Service Offices, known as CVSOs, help veterans enroll in VA health care. According to the latest VA suicide report released in September, suicide rates among veterans who had recently received VA health care increased at a slower pace than those of veterans who had not. Of the veterans who died by suicide in 2017, 62% had not recently received treatment from the VA.

“County Veteran Service Offices are on the front lines every day working to combat this tragic crisis,” Baldwin said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will support their efforts to provide needed services and solutions for our veterans that will improve their health and well-being.”

The Commitment to Veteran Support and Outreach Act would give $50 million annually to County Veteran Services Offices for five years. The VA would award the money as grants to increase the number of employees at CVSOs across the United States.

Local employees, who must be accredited by the VA, process about $22 billion in benefits for veterans in their communities each year. There are about 1,700 accredited employees across 36 states.

According to the National Association of Counties, the local offices are almost entirely funded at the county level, even though they process federal benefits.

Sullivan, who represents Alaska, a state with a high suicide rate across its population, said that increasing the number of CVSO employees could help reach “off-the-grid veterans.”

“This bipartisan bill … will reinforce the VA’s mission to expand its reach and ensure veterans who live in rural, frontier states do not get left behind,” Sullivan said in a statement.

The legislation has support from the National Association of Counties and the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, as well as several local officials and CVOs.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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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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