Immediately prior to recessing for another seven weeks, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed four veterans bills. These pieces of legislation included reforms to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) construction projects, extension of several veterans benefit programs, improvements to services for traumatic brain injury and a cost-of-living adjustment increase for veterans receiving disability compensation. However, the most pressing issue in the veterans community — preventing suicide among troops and veterans — was not addressed.
The VA reports that 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide every day. This is a striking statistic, and it will take Congress’s focused attention and committed effort to finally do something about this mounting crisis during the lame-duck session.
There is an entire new generation of veterans returning from service in the Middle East looking to start careers and reintegrate into their communities. These major life changes can be tough for a service member who may be struggling with post-deployment stress on top of his or her normal adjustment challenges after returning home from war. Even without injuries, reintegration can be stressful for returning veterans as they enroll in college, start a new job, purchase a home or make other big life changes. Mental health issues can even manifest long after a deployment concludes and the veteran returns home. Notably, struggles with invisible wounds such as post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury threaten all of these important goals.
Troops and veterans in distress require access to high-quality healthcare and effective programs that can be readily and safely accessed when they need them. Those of us in the veterans community that are personally impacted by this issue understand that suicide is an urgent issue and must be addressed with both short-term and long-term policy responses.
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) have introduced the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (the “SAV Act”). This key bill — named after a brave Marine our nation lost to suicide — takes the issue of veteran suicide head on. The bill’s reforms, evaluations and workforce enhancement incentives are critical to helping the VA better serve and treat veterans suffering from mental injuries of war.
Had these reforms been in place earlier, it is possible some veterans’ suicides may have been prevented. But this is a big opportunity for the House and Senate to pass an all around bipartisan bill and show that Congress can be a meaningful player in improving — and even saving — veterans’ lives.
Congress must double down on suicide prevention efforts during the lame-duck session and remain focused on and committed to addressing veterans’ mental healthcare issues. This important and much needed legislation must be passed if we are to have a chance at beginning to reverse the tragic trend of military and veterans suicide.