Our duty to honor veterans
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Every day, Americans must take the time to salute the brave men and women who have honorably served our country. As an Army combat veteran, I served alongside many of the country’s finest. Some ended up sacrificing everything they had for our freedoms and security — as President Lincoln once said during his famous Gettysburg Address, “they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Since the very first Continental Army, nearly 50 million Americans have answered the call to service and today 20 million live among us. Our soldiers have fought in many different places; from Yorktown to Gettysburg, Normandy to Vietnam, Iraq to Afghanistan, totaling 150 countries. It is our duty to honor them by remembering and never forgetting their sacrifice.

Now, almost 250 years after the first battle of the Revolutionary War, our veterans face a new, but familiar challenge at home: staying alive. Every single day approximately 20 of our nation’s veterans die by suicide. The veteran suicide rate is 1 1/2 times higher than that of nonveterans. Male veterans between the ages of 18 and 34 experience the highest rates of suicides, while male veterans over the age of 55 experience the highest number of suicides. More than 6,000 veterans have died from suicide per year since 2008. For comparison, a little more than 6,000 total soldiers have been lost fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Despite the veteran suicide epidemic being a top priority for our country and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the veteran suicide rate has remained stagnant for almost 15 years. That is why I am introducing two new pieces of legislation, the VA Suicide Prevention Services Act and the VA Suicide Prevention Services Accountability Act, both aimed at combating the veteran suicide epidemic and ensuring our veterans have the resources necessary to survive. The VA Suicide Prevention Services Act would require the VA to ensure that each VA medical center is staffed with at least one full-time suicide prevention coordinator. The VA Suicide Prevention Services Accountability Act would provide oversight and accountability of the VA’s mental health and suicide prevention services to find where it is falling short and improve the accessibility and effectiveness of these critical services for our veterans.

No one should be OK with this devastating epidemic affecting our service men and women who return home. The United States of America will remain the land of the free because we are the home of the brave. As Americans, it is our civic duty to do everything in our power to ensure they are protected. I will not stop until the mission to defeat the veteran suicide epidemic is accomplished. I will continue the fight and ask that you join me.

As we celebrate our men and women in uniform and honor those who have sacrificed for our country, help spread awareness of this epidemic by joining me in the fight to save our veterans.

Watkins is a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.