Raising awareness about veterans suicide

As published in The Gazette

By Senator Joni Ernst

The United States Armed Forces are made up of some of the strongest, toughest, and most selfless men and women in the world – while we recognize their heroism and bravery, many also suffer in silence with battle scars we cannot see. There are long and hard-fought roads to recovery, and the heartbreaking reality is we are facing a suicide crisis among our nation’s veterans.

September is Suicide Prevention Month and is an opportunity to raise awareness about the terrible epidemic of suicide devastating individuals and families across the country, and one that is especially plaguing our nation’s men and women who have served. According to the VA, there are approximately 20 veteran suicides per day. This month also raises the opportunity to have a discussion about the quality of mental health care that is being provided to our servicemembers.

The tragic loss of our veterans, including Iowans Richard Miles, who served in the Iraq War and Brandon Ketchum, who served in the Marine Corps and Army National Guard, underscores how critical it is that every veteran is receiving quality and timely care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). As a nation, we can and must do better.

Having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, I understand the unique challenges our troops face when returning home from war. For many, their experiences overseas and adjusting to civilian life at home can be overwhelming. According to the most recent VA study, 18 percent of all suicides in 2014 in the United States were veterans and even more shocking, we lose approximately 20 veterans to suicide each day.

The statistics on veteran suicide are staggering. Our veterans are more than just a number – they are our neighbors, community leaders, friends and family. Their dedication to our country, and the sacrifices made by their families, is immeasurable. And, it is our responsibility as Americans to care for those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect the freedoms we cherish.

When Iowans sent me to Washington, the first piece of legislation I introduced in the United States Senate was the Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act. This proposal provides an option for our veterans to receive mental health treatment outside of the VA, until they can receive comprehensive mental health care at the VA. There is no acceptable VA wait time for mental health care for our veterans. The limits to how much suffering a veteran can endure simply cannot be accurately measured by the VA or any medical professional.

Moreover, the same VA study also stated that female veterans are six times more likely to commit suicide than non-female veterans. As women assume new roles in the military, we must ensure they too are given support when they return home. With that in mind, earlier this year Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and I introduced the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act in search of ways to reduce the number of female veteran suicides and make sure the help they seek out is the very best. The bill requires the VA to identify the most effective programs and approaches in reducing suicide rates among female veterans. In July, the President signed into law our bipartisan legislation, because finding ways to provide better care for those who dutifully served is not a partisan issue– it is a priority for all Americans.

As your United States Senator, I will continue to fight for those who so bravely and selflessly served for our freedoms. During Suicide Prevention Month, I hope you will join me in raising awareness for suicide prevention, especially among our veteran community, because one life lost to suicide is too many, and our veterans deserve better. They deserve the very best.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, serves on four Senate committees: Armed Services; Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Small Business and Entrepreneurship.