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Opening Statement of Hon. Shelley Berkley, a Representative in Congress from the State of Nevada

Mr. Chairman,

I am extremely discouraged that we are here today holding a hearing on the VA’s cover-up of veterans’ suicide attempts.  I find it absolutely appalling that anyone would try to conceal these numbers – preventing us from addressing the root of the issue of suicide among veterans.  We must provide sufficient mental health services to our veterans in order to address the needs facing our servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nationally, one in five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from PTSD.  Twenty-three percent of members of the Armed Forces on active duty acknowledge a significant problem with alcohol use.  It is vital that our veterans receive the help they need to deal with these conditions. 

The effects of substance abuse are wide ranging, including significantly increased risk of suicide, exacerbation of mental and physical health disorders, breakdown of family support, and increased risk of unemployment and homelessness.  Veterans suffering from a mental health issue are at an increased risk for developing a substance abuse disorder.

As servicemembers return from combat, it becomes increasingly important to provide them with the mental health services they need to readjust to society and deal with the invisible wounds of war.

A constituent of mine, Army Pfc. Travis Virgadamo returned home from Iraq on leave.  During this trip, he told his family he had been so frightened, he had sought and received psychiatric counseling from the military in Iraq.  He also received additional counseling during that trip home in late July.  The Army’s response was to treat him with Prozac.  After returning to Iraq, Virgadamo was placed on suicide watch and the bolt from his rifle was taken away, making the weapon useless.  He was also given a desk job.  After Virgadamo was cleared for combat again, they gave him back the bolt to his rifle.  Hours later, he killed himself.

Even though he was still on active duty (placing him under DoD jurisdiction), this incident only reinforces the fact that we need to place more emphasis on mental health of servicemembers in or returning from combat.