May 30, 2007
Dear VCS Supporter:
Suicide is a tough subject. If you could save a life, would you? A veteran’s life? A police officer’s life? A hostage’s life?
The number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran suicides keeps escalating. And a highly disturbing, yet very small, pattern is emerging: suicide by cop.
Here are three disturbing cases of potential suicide by cop, where a veteran would rather die in a hail off civilian police gunfire than return back through the gates of hell to the Iraq War combat zone.
Andres Raya in California in 2005. James Dean in Maryland in 2006. And Brian Skold in Minnesota in 2007.
If the deaths of these three recent combat veterans are an indicator, then Americans may face more tragic suicide by cop incidents as more soldiers are sent back to fight a second, third, or fourth time to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In 1998 I gave a speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars post about a fellow Gulf War veteran who killed himself. An older VFW member said that I should just get over it because veterans kill themselves after every war.
That type of do-nothing defeatism expressed after the Gulf War isn’t tolerated here at Veterans for Common Sense. In 1997, a troubled and armed Gulf War veteran contemplating suicide in front of his daughter called me at home one night. After a marathon phone call, I was able to get the police and his minister to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
This issue of combat veteran suicides is in the national spotlight thanks to the superb efforts of my friends Steve Robinson and Paul Rieckhoff. The Associated Press recently reported that, “although suicides among troops returning from the war is a significant problem, the scope is unknown.” The number of post-Vietnam War suicides should have taught VA and the military a lesson: take care of our veterans.
Here is VA’s lame duck excuse: “We don’t keep that data,” said Karen Fedele, a VA spokeswoman in Washington. “I’m told that somebody here is going to do an analysis, but there just is nothing right now.” After five years of escalating war, the failure of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to have a firm handle on suicides is both unconscionable and unacceptable. VA’s new Under Secretary for Health Michael Kussman needs work with DoD’s new Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs, Ward Casscells to fix this emerging problem now.
If we know suicides increase after war, then most of them can be monitored and many may be prevented. Therefore, we must collect information about suicides among our veterans and implement adequate mental health programs for veterans and families to reduce the number of post-war suicides among our veterans.
There are practical solutions. First, the military must implement mandatory mental health screening in order to reduce stigma. This means beefing up pre-enlistment, pre-deployment, post-deployment, and six-month-post-deployment psychological evaluations with face-to-face evaluations by certified professionals.
Second, since the administration keeps escalating the two wars and repeatedly re-deploying our service members, thus raising the risk for mental health wounds, then the military must operationalize mental health training, just as we do to prevent hot weather injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Third, the military and VA can make sure there is immediate access to high-quality mental healthcare. There must be zero-tolerance for tragic situations such as Jonathan Schulze in Minnesota.
Fourth, the military and VA must quickly work with law enforcement to provide training for police offices responding to our veterans in emergency situations. The press, religious groups, and civic groups can assist, too. Our returning veterans, more than one third of whom are returning home with mental health conditions, should not be portrayed as violent by the media.
Fifth, keep expanding VA’s highly successful Vet Center program already providing free and prompt mental health readjustment counseling services to nearly 200,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Vet Centers are now a reliable major safety net to prevent our war veterans from falling through the cracks. If you know of a veteran with questions, reassure them it is OK to seek help. Call (800) 827-1000 or visit VA’s web site to find the nearest Vet Center: www.va.gov
As a nation we can and must do better to honor our sacred contract with our veterans. The President, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs can start the ball rolling with a strong national call to end stigma for post-war mental health problems and institute robust screening, prompt treatment, and thorough training.
The alternative is bloody shoot-out in an alley, at a farm house, or on an interstate freeway.
In the news. VCS was quoted twice in major news articles during the Memorial Day weekend, one about VA’s financial problems, and another one about VA’s anti-PTSD policies.
Finally, please donate to VCS this week. Let’s end May 2007 with a flood of donations so we can hire more staff. Your generous contribution this month maintains our efforts raising issues and promoting common sense solutions.
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Thank you for your support. After two months back in action, we are back to operating one hundred percent due to your gnerosity.
Veterans for Common Sense
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