Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller visits Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Nov. 25, 2020.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller visits Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Nov. 25, 2020. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

How Biden Can Help Warriors Save Warriors

Make a call, take a call, and be honest — it could help save a life.

One of the top priorities for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration must be to arrest and reverse the terrible suicide trend that has befallen America’s military veterans and active duty service members.

The initial signs are positive that the incoming administration is taking this tragic issue seriously.

The Biden team overseeing Veterans Affairs issues is led by Meg Kabat, a capable former national director of VA’s Caregiver Support Program, and includes many other strong advocates for veterans. The incoming administration promises among their priorities to “publish within the first 200 days in office a comprehensive public health and cross-sector approach to addressing suicide in veterans, service members, and their families.”

The Biden team also says it will create “a national center of excellence for reducing veteran suicide, similar to the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans,” and that it will require all providers of veterans services funded by the VA to receive training on suicide risk identification.

All of this is much needed. But what about those vets who don’t raise their hands, who are suffering in silence, whose physical or psychological injuries have left them perilously disconnected from others? How to reach them, these men and women who are most vulnerable and who may not engage with VA or other services?

When it assumes the reins of government on Jan. 20, the Biden team should prioritize connection with these silent vets as an essential first step to their wellbeing. And there is no one more equipped and better suited to make that potentially life-saving connection than a fellow veteran, someone whose experiences were forged in the same furnace.

That’s the message of the Troops First Foundation, which is calling on those who are wearing or who have worn the uniform to share a sense of responsibility for those with whom they have served. The urgent request of service members and veterans is simple: stop and engage. Reach out and connect with former battle buddies who have selflessly served our nation and let them know you care. Make a call, take a call, and be honest — it could help save a life.

The hope is that a Biden administration will add this effort to their toolkit, build on this work and support a robust national awareness initiative to spur more of those connections, such as dedicating a specific time period on the calendar to recognize a Warrior Call Day or Warrior Call Month, where vets or service members make a call and connect with their battle buddies.

Research shows these brave men and women are less likely to seek help, even though they may need it most. “Suicide rates for active-duty service members and veterans are rising, in part, experts say, because a culture of toughness and self-sufficiency may discourage service members in distress from getting the assistance they need,” Carol Giacomo wrote in the New York Times last year.

Further fueling their disconnection from others is that many may be suffering invisible wounds, branded and stigmatized by mental illness labels, making it harder for our medical enterprise to explain the complex symptoms and irregular behaviors often manifested by these veterans. Suffering veterans struggle to understand why life has so radically changed for them, often feeling isolated from friends and family and the society that they swore an oath to protect and serve.

At the same time, veterans will often give anything to help a battle buddy, a sentiment captured in the Army’s soldier’s creed and carried across all branches of the military: “I am a warrior and a member of a team.” More than ever, especially as recent statistics highlight deeply worrisome trends, a Biden administration must help warriors connect with their former teammates. For warriors understand, there is no greater calling than reaching out to pull a friend from the abyss.

Making connections is the most basic of human needs. For those who are suffering, the world becomes a little more hopeful when a battle buddy calls.

Larkin is co-chair of the Warrior Call initiative, a former Navy SEAL, 40th U.S. Senate sergeant at arms, and father of a Navy SEAL son who died by suicide.