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In testimony Wednesday before a joint hearing of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, Richard L. DeNoyer, national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, urged Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of disabled veterans or on the men and women who continue to serve in uniform. Here, excerpted from his testimony, is what DeNoyer said about suicide prevention for veterans:
By its very nature, suicide among military personnel and veterans presents the most serious challenge to Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and the nation. 2008 was the first year on record the suicide rate among Army ranks exceeded that of their civilian cohorts. In 2009, we lost more military members to suicide than in combat, and that total rose even higher in 2010. We must reverse that trend.
These dangers are especially poignant for the men and women serving in the National Guard and Reserves, who often do not have ready access to military treatment facilities that active-duty service members rely upon.
We applaud the inclusion in last year’s defense authorization bill of Congressman Rush Holt’s (D-N.J.) legislation to provide enhanced observation for members of the Guard and Reserve.
The VFW and others worked for a number of years to secure these new protections, and we will be following their implementation closely. The VFW believes all service members must have a one-on-one evaluation with a mental health professional before deploying, and then again at post-deployment at intervals experts believe best-suited to identify both immediate and delayed reactions to the stressors of war and reintegration.
As an added measure of protection and to increase awareness about the importance of early detection, family members also must be educated to detect signs of stress.
Spousal and parental involvement and education is absolutely essential to this effort. It is all too common for veterans to dismiss or delay treatment options, and family members often are unsure how to respond to an episode or personality change.
Educating those closest to veterans to properly identify warning signs is a common-sense way to equip our allies with the best weapons in the fight against mental illness and suicide.
Such efforts will help over time to reduce stigma, but the Defense Department and VA must act specifically – and with urgency – to address and eliminate the stigma associated with seeking care for suicidal thoughts and other mental health concerns.
In 2011, the Defense Department reported almost half of Army soldiers and one-third of Marine Corps personnel — who were studied in Afghanistan and screened positive for a mental health condition — were concerned they would be seen as weak by their fellow service members. They also found a fourth of these men and women expressed worry about the impact of a diagnosed mental health condition on their military careers. These numbers are a cause for alarm, and yet we see no direct and robust plans or actions taking shape at VA to address this issue.
The VFW urges Congress to address this situation head on by ensuring VA maintains an aggressive outreach campaign to veterans of all conflicts and services, and conducts any necessary research to ensure this outreach also destigmatizes the act of seeking care for these conditions. VA must ensure mental health is fully integrated into the Patient Aligned Care Teams, and must craft methods to collect data on the effectiveness of VA treatment to alleviate concerns about patient outcomes and timeliness that work to dissuade a veteran who may consider seeking VA care.
Beyond legislative initiatives to combat suicides, the Defense Department and VA must identify programs that show success in communities around our nation, and support them where they already exist and expand them into areas where there is a need. With an average of 18 veterans committing suicide every day, to do anything less is failure.
Richard L. DeNoyer, a retired Marine and Vietnam combat veteran from Middleton, Mass., leads the 2 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. and its auxiliaries.
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