WASHINGTON, DC (March 24, 2014) – Veterans from across America storming Capitol Hill with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) today demanded Congress and the President take new action on their top issue: combating veteran suicide. At an event with leading mental health advocates, IAVA announced the “We’ve Got Your Back: Campaign to Combat Suicide” and unveiled IAVA’s 2014 Policy Agenda, which includes a call for omnibus legislation and a comprehensive Executive Order from President Obama to significantly reduce the number of suicides among veterans and servicemembers. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 22 veterans die by suicide each day. In IAVA’s 2014 Member Survey, over 47 percent of respondents said they knew a veteran who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan who had attempted suicide.
This week, 32 veteran leaders from nationwide are participating in Storm the Hill, IAVA’s advocacy program that brings the stories of the more than 2.5 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to Washington. The veterans come from 16 states and represent IAVA’s diverse, dynamic and rapidly-growing national membership. All have been affected in some way by suicide, including knowing family and friends who have faced mental health challenges. Throughout the week, they will meet with members of Congress, the VA, the Department of Defense and the White House, urging policymakers to adopt IAVA’s recommendations to bridge the gaps in care and ultimately break through the negative stigma that is too often associated with seeking help. On Thursday, they will participate in a National Day of Action. In Washington, veterans and supporters will place American flags on the National Mall to represent each of the estimated 1,892 veterans and servicemembers who have died by suicide this year and share the stories of friends and families lost.
“Combating suicide is the top issue of the new veteran community in 2014 – and it should be a top issue for Washington and the entire nation. Too much is at stake,” said IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff. “This should be an issue everyone in Washington can work together on—Republican and Democrat. The young men and women taking part in Storm the Hill have put their lives on hold this week to represent their community. These dynamic leaders are in our nation’s capitol this week because they want Washington to do more to combat suicide and support our brothers and sisters. We’ve lost too many of our friends over the years. It’s long past time for Washington to listen to veterans and take bold action to support our community on this critical issue. This week, IAVA veterans will lead. We expect the President and Congress to follow, respond and work with us to change the course of history and save countless lives over the decades to come. If our entire country is focused, there’s no limit to what we can achieve together.”
IAVA’s 2014 Policy Agenda is a blueprint for combating suicide and is driven by data from member veterans nationwide, partner organizations, and a decade of experience. The Policy Agenda also includes recommendations for keeping the VA on track to end the disability claims backlog by 2015, protecting the Post-9/11 GI Bill, reducing unemployment, and fighting military sexual assault. It contains recommendations for Congress and the White House., as well as mayors, governors, business leaders, and philanthropic organizations. The full Policy Agenda can be read here.
IAVA is pushing for new, comprehensive legislation that would strengthen mental health care and suicide prevention. The legislation would improve access to care for servicemembers and veterans; increase capacity to meet the demand for mental health care, including by helping the VA fill more than 1,000 open mental health positions open on USAJobs; improve the quality of care for servicemembers and veterans; expand proactive outreach to those in crisis; ensure seamless care to those who served; and involve the whole nation in combating suicide.
Additionally, IAVA called on President Obama to make this issue a top priority by signing an Executive Order around suicide prevention, which will include a Presidential Call to Service for mental health providers and appointing a National Director of Suicide Prevention to bring direction and priorities to the hundreds of suicide prevention programs currently in operation. This director must take charge of coordinating between the DOD and VA to ensure a seamless transfer of records while the veteran transitions between the two – so that no one falls between the cracks.
Speakers at Monday’s mental health panel and Policy Agenda unveiling included Rieckhoff; Terri Tanielian, Senior Social Research Analyst at the RAND Corporation; Loree Sutton, Brigadier General (Ret.) in the U.S. Army and Co-Director of Threshold GlobalWorks, LLC; Caitlin Thompson, VA Deputy Director of Suicide Prevention.
As part of its Campaign to Combat Suicide, all year long IAVA will activate every element of its membership, programs and partners – both on-the-ground and online. IAVA will incorporate this effort into everything we do from our monthly VetTogethers to our over 500,000-person strong social media community. We will empower our almost 300,000 members and supporters to serve as a ground force for outreach, support and advocacy. And we will travel the country, turning public attention to the issue of veteran suicide and promoting solutions.
IAVA connects veterans to mental health services, including partnering with the Veterans Crisis Line to ensure that every servicemember, veteran, family member and provider knows that there is free and confidential help available 24 hours a day through phone, text and online. Veterans, or those concerned about veterans, can call 800-273-8255 and press 1 to be directly connected to qualified responders.
Now in its 10th year, Storm the Hill puts IAVA’s top issue for the year on the map and has jumpstarted historic changes, including the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, advanced funding for health care at the VA, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, and last year, a national focus on the high VA disability claims backlog.
Visit StormTheHill.org to learn more about IAVA’s efforts to combat suicide, Storm the Hill and our 2014 class of Stormers. All week, IAVA will be posting photos, videos and personal stories on social media and with the #StormtheHill and CombatingSuicide hashtags on Twitter.
Veterans Storming the Hill this week with IAVA bring their own stories of service in and out of the military. These are two stories:
Ann Weeby served in Iraq in 2003-04 leading convoys, building enemy prisoner of war camps, and supporting engineer missions as part of the Michigan Army National Guard. When she came home she fought to get education benefits and integrate back into college life. She’s used the skills she learned in the military to help build strong communities by rebuilding parks, providing healthy school lunches to kids, and, in her current role, supporting low-income veterans, including those facing mental health challenges. Ann lives in San Francisco with her husband and son.
“From my deployment in Iraq through my work today helping low-income veterans in the San Francisco area, helping my fellow service members has always been priority number one. But we can’t do it alone,” Weeby said. “We need Congress and the President to stand with us in this paramount fight to combat veteran suicide. I’m honored to Storm the Hill with IAVA this week and take an important step toward curbing the devastating veteran suicide rate.”
Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin served as a Marine and was deployed to Iraq in several capacities, including Combat Correspondent. During an assignment on an 11-day combat mission in Northern Iraq, Aaron was severely wounded in an IED attack that killed six Marines. Aaron calls the transition period after leaving the military one of the worst times of his life. Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin was Operation Mend’s first patient in August 2007. Aaron currently serves as a Leadership Fellow for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), helping to combat veteran suicide. Aaron has spoken at various events and corporations throughout the country. Aaron lives in Rogers, Arkansas with his two children.
“Every veteran knows another vet who has struggled with mental health issues since they have returned home from overseas,” Mankin said. “ For some vets – who slipped through the cracks and couldn’t get solid care – their struggle tragically ended in suicide. We have got to address this problem. I’m here in DC to ensure that this becomes a national focus for our country and to push Congress and the President to fight for us as hard as we fought for them.
Note to media: Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-982-9699 to speak with IAVA CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff or IAVA leadership.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (www.IAVA.org) is the leading post-9/11 veteran empowerment organization (VEO) with the most diverse and rapidly growing membership in America. As a non-profit founded in 2004, IAVA’s mission is to connect, unite and empower post-9/11 veterans. Celebrating its 12th year anniversary, IAVA has connected more than 1.2 million veterans with resources and community, and provided more than 7,300 veterans with personalized support from IAVA’s Master’s level social workers.