According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were nearly 20.4 million U.S. veterans in 2016. Among the greatest problems facing veterans in our country today are employment and reintegrating into the civilian economy, proper healthcare, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and personal finances. These issues were reported by veterans themselves in a survey carried out by RallyPoint/Rasmussen Reports in 2015. Their survey of 1,473 of both active and retired military adults found 38% of respondents reporting transition to civilian life to be the most pressing concern, followed by employment (24%), access to healthcare (13%) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (9%).
However, one of the most pressing and urgent challenges faced by our country is the staggering rate of veterans taking their own lives. The Veteran’s Health Administration, or simply the VA, is the nation’s largest integrated healthcare system, composed of 170 medical centers and more than 1,000 outpatient sites of care serving nearly 9 million veterans each year. The VA estimates that almost 22 American veterans commit suicide each day in the United States. That’s one almost every hour. The 8,000 veterans who take their own lives each year account for roughly 1 out of 5 suicides in the U.S. annually. For a number of complex and interrelated reasons, veterans are at a higher risk for suicide than their civilian counterparts. As mentioned above, difficulty reintegrating into civilian life, difficult finding and maintaining employment, healthcare issues – both mental and physical, and the looming specter of PTSD, all contribute to a heavy burden faced by those both deployed and returned from service.
While the popular conception of PTSD defines the condition as only affecting those fought in combat, the truth is far more complicated. Many veterans face serious depression and the risk of suicide from other factors, including feelings of isolation, loneliness, substance abuse, and financial hardship. Recent revelations concerning the VA’s broken system, like the wait-list scandal of 2014, have resulted in billions of dollars being injected into the programs. Sadly, a 2016 report by the Obama Administration’s Commission on Care revealed that problems still persist, including “flawed governance, insufficient staffing, inadequate facilities, antiquated IT systems and inefficient use of employees.” A tragic illustration of the VA’s failure to reach its service members in need was 33-year old Marine and Army veteran Sgt. Brandon Ketchum. A native of Davenport, Iowa, Ketchum served three combined tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. On July 8th, 2017, Ketchum posted on Facebook that he had attempted to be admitted by the Veterans Administration hospital in Iowa City, but was turned away. Hours later, he took his own life. Sgt. Kechum’s passing is a heartbreaking story repeated thousands of times each year across the country. Indeed, his difficulty in accessing VA healthcare is also indicative of a larger problem. According to veteran’s care experts, 17 out of 22 daily suicides involve those not currently receiving treatment through a VA hospital or outpatient location. Many of those seeking treatment are put on wait lists for months. Comprehensive reform at the Congressional level is still needed. But what the average citizen does in a time of legislative gridlock over spending in Washington?
One of the most meaningful and impactful ways we as Americans can better support our veterans is by reaching out to those directly in our local community. There are thousands of inspiring stories each year about people taking initiative and showing their support and appreciation for their community’s veterans. For example, in Easthampton, Massachusetts, police officers will grow their beards out in January to raise awareness around veteran suicide and raise money for the veteran advocacy group Twenty Two Until None. Effective measures at the state level are also crucial to ending these tragedies. Another striking piece of legislation will also serve to combat the epidemic of Veteran suicide. In September 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law into effect which requires state officials to compile statistics on how many U.S. service veterans take their own lives each year. The San Diego Tribune reports that “the legislation requires the California Department of Public Health to report the number of veteran suicides every year to the state Legislature and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.” This law would ensure that no veteran who is a victim of suicide will go uncounted and that stronger data will further persuade the Federal government to take more measures to address the issue directly. America has been embroiled in bitter domestic disagreements over politics since the 2016 election. Trump’s presidency has undoubtedly caused massive rifts in the American landscape over economic, social and legal grounds. However, we must not forget to devote our attention and gratitude to those who have served our country, regardless of our political stance. By pushing for more care at the local/community level as well as on a national scale, we can begin to address this problem head-on by saving lives of America’s heroes.