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Harnessing the power of community to tackle the issue of veteran suicide

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Veteran suicide is real and personal. When I was a young lieutenant in the Army, my soldiers and I believed that our communications section chief Sergeant First Class Terry Dennis was the strongest man in our unit. In our minds, he was invincible. But we never realized that he suffered from the invisible wounds of war. While still on active duty, Dennis killed himself.

From 2008 to 2016, there were more than 6,000 veteran suicides each year, according to research conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2016, the suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for veterans than for nonveterans. Sergeant First Class Josh Burnette was one of my soldiers at the 7th Special Forces Group, and one of many Green Berets wounded in Afghanistan. A double amputee who had struggled with both the visible and invisible wounds of war, Burnette tragically took his own life in 2016. 

This week, I testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and provided recommendations so that our nation can change the statistics and outcomes of stories like Dennis and Burnette. Congress and Veterans Affairs must start by advocating for an approach that truly harnesses the power of community and integrates the key areas of veteran transition. These are education, economic opportunity, and health and wellbeing.

While many veterans do transition smoothly into civilian life, many also face challenges including finding meaningful employment, earning a college degree, and being treated for the physical and mental wounds of war. By establishing a common vision for both veteran services and outcomes, we can far better combat these challenges. To be successful, this new vision needs to promote collaboration and instill a culture of accountability and measurement for outcomes across the government and private sector. We must also reduce barriers to quality health care.

Our research has shown that not enough veterans are seeking the care they need. Eight out of 10 veterans say that embarrassment or shame is a barrier. Some simply do not believe that effective health care even exists. Others believe that asking for help will impact their future success and careers. While some of our war fighters return home with visible injuries, others return with the invisible wounds of war, which are traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress. Barriers to health care should not be an obstacle for veterans, especially since effective treatment is available.

Partnerships between the public sector and private sector are part of the solution to making care accessible. There are examples already at work. When the George Bush Institute recognized the need to connect veteran peer networks with best in class clinical care providers, we created the Warrior Wellness Alliance. Veterans Affairs is a partner with us on those efforts. With our framework, coordination, and clearer data, we can better serve our veterans while maximizing our national efforts and resources. 

We must also improve access to quality mental health care for veterans and their families. The administration, Congress, and Veterans Affairs should focus the full weight of the government on enforcing consistent quality standards, and partnering with the private and nonprofit sectors to identify comprehensive solutions for increasing the availability and quality of effective health care. Solutions such as these result in hopeful stories.

Marine Corps Corporal Dave Smith went on two deployments to Iraq, after which he experienced severe post traumatic stress. He came home drunk one night, stared down the barrel of a gun, and contemplated his suicide. Thankfully, he put the gun down. With support from family and friends, Smith sought professional counseling and treatment. He found purpose volunteering with Team Rubicon and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. He connected with other veterans while mountain biking with President Bush. Smith is married, has a fulfilling career, and welcomed a baby girl last year. He is proof that all veterans can thrive.

The Prevents Initiative to combat veteran suicide and hearings like the one that took place today are important steps. The administration, Congress, and Veterans Affairs should continue making strides to ensure that more hopeful stories like the one of Smith are the rule and not the exception.

Miguel Howe is a retired United States Army colonel and the Graham Fellow with the Military Service Initiative at the George Bush Institute.

Tags Congress Education Government Health Military President Veterans

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