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Hannah Sinoway | May 25, 2020

READ: IAVA CEO Comments on Memorial Day during COVID-19 and how to support veterans

This Memorial Day will be unlike any most of us have experienced. Memorial Day is about remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country. For the post-9/11 generation of military and veteran members, particularly in the last few years, Memorial Day is perhaps especially important because it was one of the few times that the country seemed to turn their collective attention to the fact that we continue to be a country at war. A small fraction of the country has served in the military. A smaller fraction fought in the post-9/11 battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and other countries that most Americans have a hard time finding on a map. An even smaller fraction gave their lives in those fights.

This year, the global pandemic has not only killed so many in such a short period of time but has also wrought havoc on our mental health and well-being – at a time when suicide is a leading cause of death for our service men and women.

Few groups are as vulnerable to the challenges of mental health as our veterans. Despite years of promises of action and fixes by leaders, we continue to lose an average of 20 veterans a day to suicide – that is nearly twice the rate of their civilian counterparts. With increased isolation and exponentially higher-than-normal unemployment rates due to the COVID-19 crisis, we can only expect to see these numbers rise. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has already seen a 50 percent increase in outreach from veterans through our Quick Reaction Force program for mental health support since the COVID-19 crisis began in March.

We must do more to support our servicemembers before their mental health needs become personal crises. There are many ways we can support our veterans, at both the legislative and individual levels, and this Memorial Day, we urge all Americans to do their part to give back to those who have given us so much.

The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019 is a major step in improving outreach to veterans and offers new mental health care options. This bill promises to enhance the care provided to veterans both in and out of VA care through research, access to rural health opportunities and boosting the number of mental health care providers in the VA system, among other important steps. Co-sponsored by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and ranking member Jon Tester (D-Mont.), this much-needed legislation passed the Senate VA Committee in January but still has a long way to go.

We urge the full Senate to pass this bill and for its introduction in the House of Representatives so it can become law this year.

Beyond creating additional avenues of support for veterans in and out of VA care, legislators should consider support to the non-profit organizations that provide veterans with supplemental care and resources and hold VA accountable. As many of these groups are donor-based, the economic downturn has hit them particularly hard at a time when their services are needed most. By providing relief to non-profits in this space, whether through innovative tax breaks or relief in the next stimulus package, Congress can ensure continued support for veterans from the organizations that are best equipped to assist.

But support for our veterans isn’t just the responsibility of the government or the non-profit realm. Beyond expressing gratitude for service, every American can be an advocate for our veterans by bridging the work of nonprofits, the needs of our servicemembers and the priorities of our legislators through outreach to our representatives to urge them to advance bills like the CDR John Scott Hannon Act.

If we are truly going to win, we must all join in the fight to ensure that we never lose another veteran to suicide. The brave men and women of our military volunteered to protect and defend us all; and they earned our protection and support. As we also take time to remember the fallen, please join me this Memorial Day to honor all who have served by advocating for the mental health resources our veterans urgently need and deserve.

This piece originally ran in The Hill publication on May 25, 2020.

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