Last month, starting at dawn and concluding hours later, veterans and supporters placed 1,892 American flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., representing the number of veterans estimated to have died by suicide to date in 2014.
That’s 22 a day, according to estimates of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The National Day of Action was part of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s annual “Storm the Hill” event. This year IAVA was in Washington calling on Congress and the president to take new, strong action to combat suicide.
The same day we placed American flags on the Mall, we welcomed the introduction of the Suicide Prevention for American Veterans (SAV) Act. The bill was introduced by the first Iraq war veteran to serve in the Senate, John Walsh of Montana. In announcing the legislation and the need for new action, Sen. Walsh shared how this issue has personally affected him, including how one of the soldiers he commanded in the Montana National Guard died by suicide when the unit returned home from Iraq.
Sen. Walsh’s bill would extend VA health care for some veterans from five to 15 years, review wrongful discharges, and ensure greater collaboration between VA and DOD to ensure a seamless transition of care for our men and women in uniform.
Now, the House needs to introduce a similar bill and more senators from both parties need to support this bill. The biggest request veterans and the American public need to demand from Congress is this: for once, please do not let the stale election-year politics of old stand in the way of enacting necessary reforms that will save lives.
Congress needs to bridge the gaps in care, break through the negative stigma that is too often associated with seeking help, and ultimately lower the number of suicides in the veteran and service member community. This may seem like a lot to ask, but for the newest generation of veterans, it’s nothing we haven’t done before. It’s one thing to take a look at some government program and measure where it currently is versus where it was projected to be; that’s nothing new to anyone who has ever spent five minutes working in Washington. What makes this effort so different and so unique is that lives are at stake this time around.
Although this legislation is a significant step in our efforts, it represents just one aspect of IAVA’s Campaign to Combat Suicide. We are also demanding the president of the United States to get involved and issue an executive order that will focus on streamlining and expediting suicide prevention efforts. Combating service member and veteran suicide is a priority for all government agencies. From issuing a Presidential Call to Service for mental health providers, to appointing a National Director of Suicide Prevention, to reviewing and upgrading wrongful military discharges, signing this new executive order will send a signal to our community and the nation that combating suicide is something that will be addressed with urgency at the highest levels of government.
Finally, the third part of our effort is focused on generating a national conversation not only about suicide in the military and veterans community, but also touching upon related issues within the mental health community that affect veterans of all generations.
As part of our Campaign to Combat Suicide, all year long IAVA will activate every element of our membership, programs and partners – both on-the-ground and online.
Every person on the Mall that day will remember the images of 1,892 flags between the Capitol and Washington Monument. And everyone who took part in Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran of America’s Day of Action was emboldened to do more to support the mental well-being of the men and women who have been repeatedly asked to defend American interests in battlefields all across the world.
Too often family members are left wondering what if following the death of a loved one. For a number of years we have heard about the “invisible wounds” of war. For thousands of servicemembers, veterans and their families, the attention and care devoted to these wounds was invisible. Now, with the attention of Washington and the nation, we can turn this conversation into visible solutions so Americans do not have to wake up and learn about another tragic loss and another American flag added to the National Mall.
Nick McCormick is a legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He previously worked as a legislative assistant for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. McCormick deployed to Iraq from 2008-2009 as a human intelligence collector with the U.S. Army.