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Tom Tarantino

Tom Tarantino, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Policy Associate

Mr. Chairman, ranking member and distinguished members of the committee, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and our more than 100,000 members nationwide, I thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony regarding veteran suicide, and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ outreach efforts. 

Since the beginning of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have witnessed a dramatic upswing in suicide rates among troops on active-duty and veterans. In 2006, the suicide rate for active-duty soldiers reached its highest level in decades, with 97 Army suicides. In 2007, this disturbing trend escalated beyond all expectations to 115. And just last week, it was revealed that the suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2008 are likely to be even higher, as there have been 62 confirmed and 31 suspected suicides already this year. Tragically, for the first time since the Vietnam War, the Army suicide rate is on track to exceed that of the civilian population.

While the rate of military suicides is closely monitored, the VA only just recently began tracking the suicide rate for veterans.  From 2002 – 2005, 141 veterans who left the service after September 11, 2001 took their own lives. In 2006 alone, there were 113 suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans. The suicide rate for male veterans ages 18-29 in 2006 was about 46 suicides per 100,000, compared with about 20 suicides per 100,000 for their nonveteran peers. And these are just the cases that are being tracked by the VA.  For veterans of all generations, data on suicide is equally troubling. While veterans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 20% of the suicides. As evidenced by these statistics, suicide is likely to be a long term problem for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Multiple tours, inadequate dwell time between tours, strained relationships, and financial difficulties have all contributed to the rising rate of suicide among active-duty troops and veterans. Mental health injuries are also a major risk factor. According to a RAND study, 300,000 of the 1.7 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will develop combat-related mental health issues.  Many of these cases will go untreated, and if allowed, develop into severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Suicide is the end result of multiple failures in our military and veterans’ mental health care systems.  Inadequate mental health screening upon redeployment, professional and personal stigma attached to mental health care, and inadequate VA outreach have brought us to this crisis, with little to no end in sight. 

The establishment of the VA suicide hotline last year was a critical first step in reversing this trend, and with over 55,000 calls received, it is clear that the VA moving in the right direction in getting the message out about this service.  The success of the VA hotline is admirable and we applaud them for making this toll-free hotline available to veterans in need.  But with the hotline averaging 250 calls per day from troubled veterans and concerned family members, it is clear that more needs to be done to reach out to vulnerable veterans and get them the help they desperately need.

The VA is currently testing outreach advertisements in the Washington, DC region.  While these efforts are necessary, the execution leaves much to be desired.  Appearing on buses and trains, these print ads do not adequately relate to veterans of this conflict and are not as effective as they could be.  The silhouette employed in the ad is clearly not of a modern soldier, and the ad itself blends into the background of ads that litter our public transportation system.  It is clear that while the VA had the right idea with their outreach efforts, they have not done sufficient advertising research to connect with veterans of the current conflicts. 

IAVA is doing its part to reach out to new veterans, and ensure that they know about the services available to them. IAVA has recently partnered with the Ad Council for a historic 3-year Public Service Announcement campaign set to launch on Veterans Day.  It is our belief that through extensive research, testing and the use of multiple mediums, including TV, radio, print, and the internet, we will be able to reach those veterans who need and do not typically seek help.

However, outreach alone will not stem the rise in veteran suicide.  IAVA believes that a mandatory and confidential mental health screening with a mental health professional pre- and post- deployment is the first and most critical step in the early detection and prevention of combat-stress injuries that so frequently lead to suicide.  Additionally, IAVA believes that the VA must open its doors to the families of veterans so that they can receive and participate in the recovery and reintegration of our service men and women.  Coupled with a targeted and thoughtful outreach campaign by both the VA and the VSOs, these critical actions can begin to stem the tide of suicides that is tragically affecting our nation’s heroes. 

It is clear by the success of the VA hotline that there are those out there who want to reach out and need to receive care.  Now, we must redouble our efforts to reach out to those who are reluctant, yet need care none the less.  IAVA looks forward to working with the VA and the VSO community to ramp up outreach and formulate a message that modern veterans will respond to.  The alarming trend of suicides can be reversed and we are committed to providing any and all assistance needed to the VA to improve their outreach efforts.  Together as a community, we can help our brothers and sisters return from war and readjust from warrior to citizen.