Across America, 2.5 million Americans have stepped up to serve in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Small towns and big cities alike have sent their men and women overseas. As in all wars, some don’t make it home.
About 3,100 service members have lost their lives to IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. IEDs have become the signature weapon of this war and have taken a devastating toll on our military. Fortunately, there has been a massive community effort to prevent and minimize their effects on the ground. Eleven years of sustained conflict have taken another toll on our military community for those who make it home.
Shockingly, in the years since 9/11, about 3,000 military members have lost their lives to suicide. It’s shocking but true: Almost as many military members have taken their life as have lost theirs to IEDs.
The numbers continue to worsen. The U.S. Army reported 33 potential suicides in October among active duty and the reserve components. So far this year, the Army alone has lost 280 soldiers to suicide. Sadly, this means that 2012 Army suicides will undoubtedly surpass the 283 suicides the service sustained in 2011.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army’s vice chief of staff, has called suicide the toughest enemy he’s faced in his 37-year Army career. To combat this enemy the nation needs to respond with overwhelming force. That’s what we did to protect our troops from IEDs, and we owe the men and women in uniform who struggle silently with mental health issues the same dedicated response.
The battle against IEDs required a $45 billion investment in armored vehicles, which have been credited with saving thousands of troops’ lives. Protective undergarments to shield service members from blasts have also been fielded. In April, the Army issued a request for proposal for more gear. The fight to protect service members and prevent military suicide will necessitate a different but equally forceful response. We need a unified effort from Congress, the Administration, the Department of Defense, as well as public and private groups at the local, state, and national level.
Leadership is a must in this endeavor. As Congress heads back to Washington, they have the opportunity to seize the initiative and fight for veterans. Votes have been cast and elections have been won or lost, but before the new Congress takes over–which by the way will have 16 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan–the 112th can leave their mark. With only about 15 working days, they’ll need to avoid sequestration and prevent the nation from falling off the fiscal cliff, pass a defense authorization bill, and tie up loose ends in a veterans omnibus bill that hopefully will protect student vets, improve women’s health care at the Veterans Administration, and help prevent suicide. This short session will be jam-packed, with much to accomplish in a short period of time, but now is not the time for rest. The 2.5 million veterans who served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan have done their part, and now it’s time for elected officials to do theirs. There is simply too much at stake for more jockeying that favors politics over solutions. It’s time for the 112th to step up to the plate, lead, and show veterans that they’ve got their backs.
Critical mental health legislation is sitting on members of Congress’ desks and needs to be acted upon. Senator Patty Murray’s Mental Health Access Act of 2012 would improve access to support services and care for service members, veterans, and their families. The legislation will require DoD to create standardized a suicide prevention program and require the department to oversee mental health care to ensure that best practices are implemented. Understanding the toll that prolonged wars take on families, the legislation would expand eligibility for VA mental health services to family members, helping them to get the care and support needed. Lastly, the act would require VA to establish reliable measures for mental health and adopt an effective staffing plan in order to best serve veterans. Congress needs to act, or veterans will be left behind.
The severity of military suicide cannot be overstated and the nation can’t risk inaction when combating this rampant enemy. In a recent report published by the Center for New American Security, Upholding the Promise: Supporting Veterans and Military Personnel in the Next Four Years, senior fellow Phillip Carter identified military suicides as one of the immediate challenges the next Obama administration will need to face. The report notes that VA and DoD need to invest in more research to understand suicide and the relationship between suicide and military service, but it also issues a call to leadership, noting that senior military and civilian leaders must be more engaged and the military must treat mental health as critical component of readiness.
The 113th Congress is just around the corner. No matter what get’s done in the 112th’s Lame Duck, we still have a long way to go to win this war. Just as veterans have relied on the leadership of Senator Murray in during this Congress veterans from coast to coast will be looking to Senator Murray’s likely successor at the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee – Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Senator Sanders has been a strong advocate for veterans’ issues. He has pushed to expand veterans’ health care, opposed budget cuts that would trim military retirement and veterans’ disability cost-of-living allowances, and co-sponsored the new Post 9/11 GI Bill, which dramatically expanded educational benefits for new veterans. Senator Sanders has also worked tirelessly to ensure that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get proper care for invisible injuries that if left untreated, can tragically lead to suicide.
We look forward to working closely with Senator Sanders. We will work with him and other legislators to make great progress to ensure veterans get the care and benefits they deserve.
IAVA has partnered with the Veterans Crisis Line, a VA initiative, to bring resources to events and to provide IAVA’s membership with direct and immediate access to mental health professionals. Add the Veterans Crisis Line number to your phone, it only takes a second – 1-800-273-8255, press 1 for veterans. Or text “838255” for support. If you’re a veteran, join our discussion at Community of Veterans (COV) to learn more about the partnership and the warning signs of suicide.
Follow Tom Tarantino on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@tomtarantino