Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for hearing me speak today. On behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, I would like to thank you all for your unwavering commitment to our nation’s veterans. The Committee originally invited our Executive Director, Paul Rieckhoff, to testify today. Unfortunately, Mr. Rieckhoff had a prior engagement that he could not reschedule and so he asked me to be here today on his behalf. I will do my best to fill his boots this morning.
I would like to begin by thanking the Committee for the outstanding leadership you provided to ensure that legislation combating suicide among veterans made its way into law. Specifically, I would like to thank you for your efforts to pass the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act. IAVA wholeheartedly endorsed this ground-breaking legislation and we are excited about the positive impact it will have on all veterans.
I was very excited to hear about the nomination of General Peake to be the new secretary of the Veterans Administration. General Peake is a combat veteran who holds dear the Army’s “Warrior Ethos.” The Warrior Ethos states that “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, I will never leave a fallen comrade.” I believe we can apply the lessons of combat, and the Warrior ethos, to improving suicide prevention at the VA.
On my second combat tour in Fallujah, Iraq, I was on a patrol with my team of six Marines. As we moved through the city we made our way to Jolan Park, located in the Northwestern portion of the city, to link up with our battalion’s Executive Officer. Once we arrived at the park we found ourselves alone. There were no other Marines in sight. As we surveyed the area, I noticed a group of Marines four blocks away waving their arms and jumping up and down. By the time I was able to figure out that they were telling us we were in danger, it was too late. I turned to inform my Captain and, just as I opened my mouth, the building next to us exploded. The blast was so strong that it threw me backwards. Once the dust settled and the ringing in our ears subsided, the Marines who were waving at us from down the street made their way over to our vehicle. “What the hell is wrong with you guys!?” a Major screamed at us. Apparently they were utilizing a controlled blast to destroy a massive weapons cache used by the insurgents and had called in the grid coordinates over the radio to warn all Marines to stay clear of the area. We did not get the communication. Our radio had lost its encryption.
The failure to communicate that day in Fallujah nearly killed me and six of my fellow Marines.
I believe communication is also key to success in suicide prevention.
The Army’s Field Manual 6-22.5, “A Leader's Guide to Combat and Operational Stress,” states that ensuring “communication lines are open” is one of the most “potent countermeasures to confront combat stress and to reduce psychological breakdown….”
Recently, the VA had made great strides to improve communications lines by creating a nation-wide Suicide Prevention hotline. This hotline is available to veterans and their families 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This new program has had amazing results. The VA has highlighted many stories of veterans who have used the hotline to get the help they need. But after talking to many IAVA’s members, including those in the National Guard and Reserves, we have found that they do not know that this service is available. Better outreach is the only way to ensure that these new programs are available to all who need them.
But outreach is a difficult task if you do not know where your targets are. A national registry of veterans would solve this gap in communication.
The Gulf War Registry was established to inform veterans of changes in policy regarding issues specific to the war in the Gulf such as exposure to burning oil wells and Gulf War syndrome. Although this registry is newly available to Iraq veterans, its potential is still limited. Right now, the registry is not open to Afghanistan veterans, and is only made available to those who are in the VA system. Only about one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans eligible for VA care have sought care, so the vast majority of veterans are not eligible for inclusion.
We at IAVA believe that all veterans should be included in a registry upon discharge from the military. Currently the tracking system for veterans is almost non-existent. Registering veterans, along with their deployments to specific conflicts, would help the VA reach out to veterans and family members who will benefit from their outstanding initiatives and programs, including the suicide hotline.
Much of the work of suicide prevention, however, must occur much earlier in the process. IAVA has strongly endorsed the mandatory pre- and post- deployment mental health screening of our service members by mental health professionals. This will produce a more accurate assessment of the impact that combat has on a service member’s mental health. Making screening mandatory will reduce the stigma related to seeking mental health treatment. I would compare this to the mandatory drug testing that the Department of Defense conducts for all service members. If all are required to take part, then it becomes a part of daily routine and no longer singles individuals out.
In addition to universal screening, a coherent national anti-stigma campaign will help ease the barriers keeping troops from early treatment. I am very pleased to announce that IAVA has partnered with the Ad Council for the next three years to implement a “Stigma Reducing” national ad campaign. This campaign will be in print, on television and radio and online, and will convey to the American public and our nation’s veterans that treating mental health injuries is a routine step in reintegration.
I’d like to close with another personal story of a family in Northern Virginia who have experienced first-hand the effects of suicide among the veterans’ community. They have become my friends and are almost like family to me. A few years ago, the father of the family, who served in the Army, took his own life. He left behind three children. Years later, his family still carries the tremendous emotional burden of unanswered and unanswerable questions. What more could have been done to save him?
I ask you, today, to consider that question. What could have been done? Would a hotline have been enough? A flier in the mail about the signs of suicide? A call from his local Vet Center?
My friend’s family will never know the answer. If we act now, we can implement measures that will be a crucial step in reducing suicide amongst veterans.
On the battlefield, casualties are often unavoidable. What is avoidable is suicide. If we take the proper steps to combat suicide among the veterans community, we can and will win this battle. Thank you.