End veteran suicide, safeguard our heroes’ physical and mental health

The United States of America is the greatest military power in the world, but it comes at price. We send the men and women of our Armed Forces all over the world to fight for our country. Our service members go into battle risking life and limb for the promise of a free and prosperous America. Too often their bravery and service come at a great personal cost.

Over the course of our history, hundreds of thousands of American service members have given their lives, but loss of life is not the only cost of war. For far too many, the battle continues long after they return home.

In my own state of New York, there are over 838,000 veterans who have put their lives on the line to protect the sanctity of our freedom, and every single one of them deserves the best mental health care available. After surviving the horrors of war, our nation’s heroes deserve our unwavering commitment to safeguarding their physical and mental health.

While suicide affects Americans from all walks of life and is an issue of great national concern, it is an issue that disproportionately affects our veterans. Rates among veterans are, on average, 1.5 times higher than those who have not served in the military. In September 2019, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) released an alarming report showing that at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017. According to the VA’s most recent annual report, nearly 18 veterans take their own life every day.

Eighteen lives a day. Eighteen American heroes each day whose suffering was so great that they felt compelled to take their own lives. This is unconscionable, but we cannot let their suffering be in silence. Those of us who are in positions of leadership must step up and be the voice for those who are unable to ask for help. We must make a commitment, in no uncertain terms, to support our veterans during the difficult transition from active service to civilian life.

These statistics are heartbreaking. To think that so many of our service members risked everything for their country, made it home safely, only to live in a state of mental suffering is an intolerable reality.

That is why I introduced legislation to help us understand this horrifying trend so that we might begin to make headway in reducing veteran suicide rates. The Veteran Suicide Prevention Act directs the VA to complete a review of suicides by veterans in the last five years. To solve this problem, we must first understand it.

This bill would instruct the VA to identify the total number of veterans who died by suicide during the five-year period and identify factors such as demographics, medication history, and combat experience or trauma and provide recommendations to improve the safety and well-being of veterans.

Issues of mental illness can be complex and nuanced, but we owe it to our veterans and to those still actively serving to put the full resources of the Federal government behind demystifying trends among veterans of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), history of trauma and other suicide risk factors.

Veterans have put everything on the line for their country. Now their country must return the favor with a steadfast commitment to understanding and addressing their suffering and putting an end to veteran suicide.

• U.S. Representative Andrew R. Garbarino, New York Republican, represents the Second Congressional District of New York which includes the South Shore of Long Island. He serves on the Homeland Security and Small Business Committees.

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