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Veterans’ Mental Health Care May Finally Be a Priority

Even With Endless War, Veterans Becoming More Rare

As an Army veteran, I’ve had a chance to speak with various men and women who have been to combat.

The stresses are many — the dangers real, the sacrifices great.

Sadly, because of those things, in 2017 — the last year for which numbers are available — 285 active duty troops committed suicide.

That is a sobering and dramatic figure.

However, there is another number. In 2017 more than 6,100 veterans, men and women of all ages and service types, took their lives as well, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. [1]

That is over 20 times the number of active duty suicides. That’s a vast difference in scope and tragedy.

That’s why a bipartisan bill to augment current veteran mental health programs is so important.

Co-sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the incoming chair [2] of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee [3], and Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.), the measure to be introduced in 2020 will aim to reduce the number of veteran suicides by increasing the access to services for veterans who may not reside close to a VA mental health professional.

It will also incorporate previously unconventional treatment methods such as yoga, acupuncture, and animal therapy.

Speaking during a recent Washington Post panel discussion, Moran said [4], “There is a tremendous challenge in states like Sen. Tester’s and mine, rural America, in which these professionals, if they do exist, they don’t exist close to where a veteran lives.”

As an individual who once ran a veterans homeless shelter, I know to some extent what can drive a veteran to this kind of drastic action.

In the military, major decisions such as where you live and what job you hold — plus all the standard financial issues — are made for you.

On the outside, those decisions are your own.

On a day-to-day basis in civilian life, the small decisions of life may not have a major impact. But for those who have seen combat especially, these small but important decisions can have life-and-death consequences.

Related: Two World War II Veterans Reflect on Life, Death, and God Bless America [7]

Many young people join the service just out of high school. So by the time they leave the military after several years of service, they’ve never paid rent, paid utility bills, signed a mortgage, and more. These normal tasks and responsibilities of daily life in the civilian world are foreign to them because the military lifestyle can preclude having to deal with these matters.

For young adults entering the civilian world, sometimes the military is the only way of life they’ve ever known.

The pressures of conforming to this new way of living, and the glaring contrasts between military and civilian life, can bring veterans to the brink of an existential abyss — to the very reality of ending their own lives.

Too many times, at that most dangerous and vital period in their lives, they’ve been left in the lurch by a well-meaning but inefficient and over-bureaucratic VA health system.

It’s why veterans — who deserve such sincere thanks for all they’ve done for our country [8] — sadly have actually committed suicide right on VA hospital grounds.

They’ve done so in protest against having to wait far too long for treatment when they’re faced with major physical and mental health care challenges.

As Sen. Moran said earlier this year [9] in a statement about the new measure, “One veteran lost to suicide is one too many, and Congress has an obligation to those who have bravely served our nation to help fix this tragedy.”

This bill, if it passes in next year’s Congress, can do a lot to alleviate much needless suffering.

However, as with any endeavor, the result will not be found in the intent of the sponsors or in the legislative approval of the measure.

It will only be seen in the execution of the program.