The phone call is always the same. “He was found dead in his home. We won’t know the official cause of death until after the autopsy, but it looks like an overdose – probably suicide.”
For veterans like me, this phone call is an all-too-common part of life after serving. On a typical day, approximately 22 veterans commit suicide. In the last year alone, we lost more U.S. veterans of all wars to suicide than we lost on the battlefield during the entire 13 years we’ve been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These kinds of calls always leave friends and loved ones asking the same painful questions. Why did this happen again? Did anyone know he was having trouble?
Above all, they leave us asking why the fight to get back to normal at home is so much more dangerous than the bullets, rockets and mines we faced overseas.
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The Marine Corps unit I served with in Afghanistan has lost as many Marines here at home as we did in combat. I’m tired of getting these calls.
It’s time we start asking why our government hasn’t been more involved. As a graduate student of public policy at Duke University, I’ve been researching our government’s response to the veteran suicide epidemic. To be frank, it’s embarrassing.
The most recent legislation addressing veterans’ issues was the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The bill had been sitting on the shelves of the Senate for months and probably wouldn’t have passed if it hadn’t been for the VA scandal last summer. Worse, the bill didn’t contain a single word about significantly addressing veteran suicides.
The bill had plenty of lofty aims, like extending veteran scholarship programs. But those kinds of programs aren’t enough and are irrelevant to this problem. In the 21st century, it’s irresponsible to pass a major veterans bill that doesn’t further the conversation on substance abuse, depression, overdoses and suicide. Even when Congress is finally roused to pay attention to our veteran health care needs, our leaders don’t recognize the painful realities that veterans and their loved ones live with every day.
The new legislation has an important catch, however. It encourages the VA to hire more doctors – in particular doctors with specializations that are currently understaffed. Savvy VA administrators should use this legislation to hire more doctors who specialize in identifying and treating the mental health issues that lead to depression, drug abuse and suicide. They should use the new bill to steer more funding to intensive inpatient and outpatient substance abuse and depression programs.
With the congressional midterm elections just next week, representatives in Congress will be paying special attention to views on this issue. Let them know that veterans’ mental health issues are important.
Furthermore, keep in mind this isn’t just some abstract national problem. North Carolina has the ninth-highest veteran population – with nearly 800,000 veterans. The Durham VA Medical Center, covering 17 counties, serves just over 200,000 of these veterans. Our state loses a veteran every other day to suicide, which is twice the overall suicide rate for North Carolina.
For me, the choice is either to pick up my phone and call my congressional representatives or sit around and wait for a much more painful kind of phone call.
Patrick M. Nevins, a Chapel Hill native, is a former captain in the Marine Corps who served seven years as an infantry officer. He is a graduate student at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.