By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON—In his second term, President Obama and his administration must do more to stop the growth in the number of military and veteran suicides, a recent report contends.
“In 2012, more active duty and reserve servicemembers have killed themselves than have been killed in combat action in Afghanistan, with at least 341 potential suicides among active and reserve personnel from all four services,” according to the report, “Uphold the Promise: Supporting Veterans and Military Personnel in the Next Four Years.”
Those observations on suicide are among the conclusions in a report warning that the administration faces “an array of hard choices” in how to best uphold its promise to veterans and the military community.
These choices “will be made more difficult by significant downward pressure on spending, requiring the administration to make hard choices with profound implications for the men and women who serve us in uniform, and those who came before them, as well as for our national security,” writes author Philip Carter, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the chief operating officer and general counsel for Caerus Associates.
Helping Troops and Veterans
In order to better serve troops and veterans, the administration should prioritize three areas according to Carter.
The first area includes military suicides, combat stress, veteran homelessness and veteran unemployment.
The second area is reversing the VA claims backlog and improving access to DoD and VA benefits and services.
“The enormous backlog of claims awaiting adjudication by the VA is tarnishing the VA’s brand in the eyes of veterans, who see this backlog as a tangible expression of the government’s disdain for them as well as the obstacle blocking their path to VA care and benefits,” the report notes.
In the third area, the report states that the administration must do these things “in a different political and operational environment, with the wars receding from public consciousness.”
“Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spoken frequently and eloquently about the civilian “sea of goodwill” towards the veterans and military community. However, as the wars fade, the potential exists for this sea to become an ocean of apathy,” the report states.
In order to maintain attention on issues facing the veterans and military community, the report says the president “must continue to exercise personal leadership on these issues, emphasizing the nation’s obligation to serve its veterans as well as they have served us. And the second Obama administration must build an enduring policy community and infrastructure to support the veterans and military community over the next four years and beyond.”
When it comes to suicide, the report cites a recent study that found that veteran status nearly doubles a person’s overall risk for suicide and that the suicide rate among 17- to 24-year-old veterans is nearly four times greater than their civilian peers.
The Center for New American Security document suggests that VA and DoD must “invest more in research to better understand the causes of suicide and the relationships between suicide and service, and to develop a base of data to support evidence- based actions to combat suicide among all veterans. “We still know too little about what causes suicides, and specifically about what causes suicides within the military and veterans population, to know how best to stop it.”
Furthermore, the report suggests that senior military and civilian leaders must increase their “personal involvement with this issue, commensurate with the toll suicides are taking on the force.”
“This emphasis should increase as the military transitions to a peacetime force, and from fighting the current war to preparing for the next one,” Carter wrote. “In years to come, the military must treat individual service member mental health as a critical component of readiness that is just as important as the readiness of its major weapons systems.”
The report comes as military and VA officials continue to struggle with the rising rate of suicides. Statistics released in November indicate that the Army is on track for a higher suicide rate in 2012 than in 2011. In 2011, there were a total of 165 Army active-duty suicides, while there were already 166 potential active-duty suicides through October of 2012, according to the Army report.
In a written statement in response to the Army suicide statistics, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Command said that “…effective intervention requires leadership involvement and support, an environment that promotes help-seeking for hidden wounds like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and prior knowledge of available local and national resources.”
For its part, the VA has also acknowledged the need to increase access to care for veterans for mental health issues.
“Most veterans who commit suicide were never enrolled in VA. So, as good as we think our programs are, we can’t help those we don’t treat—another reason for our initiatives to increase access and develop a seamless transition between DoD and VA,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said at a forum in the fall.