In Our View: Helping Vets Cope at Home

Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans Act aimed at stemming an epidemic



When it comes to the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, which is pending in the U.S. Senate, bill co-sponsor John Walsh, D-Mont., presents an argument that might be unassailable.

“We do a very good job of taking (a) citizen soldier and making a warrior out of him,” Walsh recently told CNN. “But we aren’t doing a very good job of taking that warrior and reintegrating him back into society.”

Walsh, who was appointed to replace retired Sen. Max Baucus and is the first Iraq War veteran to serve in the Senate, introduced the bill in an effort to stem an epidemic of suicides by veterans. According to a study last year from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide daily.

Suicide is not exclusive to veterans, but the trauma and scars of war can linger for those who served in defense of their country, and the pain can be a lifelong burden. Walsh’s legislation, developed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., attempts to address that issue.

The cost? “We spend billions of dollars making sure that our men and women are trained and equipped and ready to deploy, to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever they’re stationed around the world, so we should take that into account when they come home, as well,” Walsh said. “We need to make sure that they’re ready to go back into society.”

As mentioned, Walsh’s argument is compelling. While Americans, regardless of their feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely heap praise and gratitude upon veterans — a welcome change from the Vietnam Era — gratitude often can’t bind the wounds of war.

The Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act would, among other things, extend special combat eligibility for health care from five years to 15 years; review wrongful discharges to see if underlying mental health issues played a role; require an annual review of suicide-prevention programs within the Department of Defense; and boost the number of mental health professionals at the VA by underwriting medical school costs for psychiatrists in exchange for a commitment to work at the VA.

Walsh’s bill is worthy of support, yet it faces some roadblocks. First and foremost is the fact that the United States attempted to undertake the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without a sense of shared sacrifice. President Bush sent the nation into combat while simultaneously passing tax cuts and failing to call upon the citizenry to contribute to the war effort. The overriding sentiment was that the wars and the soldiers are on the other side of the world — out of sight, out of mind.

In addition, an interesting statistic points out how the nation’s landscape has changed in recent decades: Only 29 members of the Senate are veterans; in the mid-1970s, the number was about 70. Drumming up an understanding for the hardships faced by veterans could be more difficult than in the past. Finally, no companion bill has been presented in the House of Representatives. Somebody in the lower chamber must realize that Walsh’s bill should be a priority — preferably a Republican in the Republican-led House.

The war in Afghanistan has dragged on as America’s longest conflict, and it has been marked by multiple deployments followed by unique challenges for veterans. It has been written that the pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath; it is up to all Americans to guard against that reality.