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Opening Statement of Honorable Dan Benishek M.D., Chairman, Subcommittee on Health, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Good morning and thank you all for joining us this morning. It is a pleasure for us to be here in beautiful Cincinnati, Ohio, with all of you.

I am honored to serve as the Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Health and to be joined on the Subcommittee by your Congressman and my friend, Dr. Brad Wenstrup.

 As I am sure you know, Brad has served for the last fifteen years as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, where he has achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In the spring of 2005, he deployed to Iraq for a year. While there, he served his fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines - as well as prisoners and civilians - in Abu Ghraib as the Chief of Surgery and the Deputy Commander for Clinical Services.

For his brave and loyal service there, he earned numerous awards and accolades, including the Bronze Star.

Brad is also Doctor of Podiatric Medicine and a former small business owner.

Needless to say, the immense wealth of knowledge, experience, and insight that Brad brings to the Subcommittee is invaluable.  I am extremely grateful to work side by side with him and for his leadership on behalf of our Nation’s veterans and their families.

So, when Brad asked me to come to Cincinnati –  his hometown - to address an issue of such importance to us all – the provision of high quality and effective mental health care to veterans in need – I seized the opportunity.  

Yesterday, Brad and I paid a visit to the Cincinnati Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center. While there, we had an in-depth discussion with medical center leaders and toured the facility.  

Having worked myself as a surgeon at the Iron Mountain VA Medical Center, I most enjoyed meeting with some of the hard working Ohioans who strive day-in and day-out to provide the best possible care and services to the veterans in this community.  

I would like to take a moment to personally thank each of those health care providers, administrative personnel, and support staff for their dedication to our servicemembers, veterans, and their families.  

It is clear that there are some very special things going on in Cincinnati for our heroes and you have much to be proud of here in Ohio.

However, where the health care and services provided to our veterans is concerned, exercising our responsibility for oversight of policy and practice is paramount.

This past February, VA issued a sobering report which shows that - for the last 12 years - there have been 18 to 22 suicide deaths among our veterans every single day.

Ladies and gentleman, we have lost far too many of our veterans on the battlefield of mental illness. We have to do better. And we have to do it now.

Key to that effort is breaking down barriers to care that veterans in the midst of struggle often face when attempting to access the care they need to successfully transition home and maintain happy, healthy, and productive lives.

No veteran should be reluctant to ask for help because they are ashamed or embarrassed. And, no veteran who does take the brave step of seeking care should be told they have to wait for an appointment that is weeks or months away and/or travel long distances away from their homes and families to receive the services they need.  

Today, we will discuss the actions we must take to reduce stigma and increase the accessibility and availability of mental health care for veterans here in Ohio and across the VA health care system.

We will also discuss the increasingly vital role that faith-based and community groups are playing in helping our veterans and what we need to do to increase and improve meaningful partnerships between VA and these community resources, who are often the first and most trusted point of contact for veterans and families in need.

Finally, we will also discuss the critical part that family members and other loved ones play in the healing of our heroes and the need to increase family awareness, involvement, and integration in mental health care services, particularly for those veterans most in need of support.  

I look forward to hearing from the local Ohioans – many of them veterans – who will testify today.  I thank you for being here and for your devotion to improving the lives of Ohio’s veterans.   

With the help of communities like Cincinnati and discussions like the one we are having this morning, I am hopeful that we will shatter mistaken perceptions that mental health care is not available, not appropriate, or not effective and there will come a day when no veteran is discouraged from reaching out and seeking care and no family suffers alone.