In January, NEWSREP covered the revelation the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had seen a dramatic drop in suicide prevention outreach efforts throughout 2017 and 2018, even leaving more than $6.2 million allocated for the effort untouched throughout the last fiscal year. VA officials blamed President Trump for the rapid turnover at the senior levels of VA leadership for the slump in prevention efforts at the time.
Suicide rates among service members and veterans have also seen a sharp increase, with the Marine Corps’ active duty suicide rates reaching a ten-year high in 2018, suicides within the Special Operations community nearly tripling, and suicides among young veterans (aged 18-34) rising steadily from 40.4 for every 100,000 veterans to 45 per every 100,000. In many ways, it would seem that suicide among American veterans and service members has, at best, continued unabated and, at worst, been exacerbated by a lack of concerted outreach efforts. Many veteran suicides occur without the veteran ever even entering into the VA’s system, which, one could contend, was the point of those millions of dollars allocated for public outreach. The point remains, the VA can’t help veterans that don’t seek it.
However, a recent rash of suicides on VA properties around the country would seem to indicate that even when the veteran does engage the VA for help, there remains some significant hurdles between pursuing care and actually receiving it.
“He told his girlfriend he was going to do it in the parking lot, so they could find his body, so somebody can pay attention to what’s happening, so other vets do not have to go through this,” Gary Pressley’s mother told the press. Pressley, 29, shot himself in the chest in the parking lot of Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Georgia on April 5th.
The following day, Olen Hancock, 68, was seen pacing around the lobby of the VA Medical Center in Decatur, Georgia before returning to his vehicle in the parking lot and shooting himself.
Just a few days later in Austin, Texas another as-yet unidentified veteran drew a pistol inside the waiting room at the VA Clinic and shot himself in front of hundreds of witnesses.
“Every new instance of veteran suicide showcases a barrier to access, but with three incidents on VA property in just five days, and six this year alone, it’s critical we do more to stop this epidemic,” Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told the press.
“I have called for a full committee hearing…to hear from VA about the recent tragedies and spark a larger discussion about what actions we can take together as a nation,” Takano said.
There were 19 suicides reported on VA campuses nationwide between October of 2017 and November of 2018, with an average of slightly more than 20 veterans ending their own lives per day across the country. Statistically, veterans, whether they saw combat or not, are around 50% more likely to commit suicide than civilians, though the root cause of veteran suicide remains elusive for researchers and mental health officials alike.
“I wish it was as simple as me saying I could do more patrols in a parking lot that would stop this epidemic,” Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, told senators last Wednesday. “Where we as a community and society have failed that veteran is a very complex answer.”