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Advocacy group calls for new thinking around veteran suicides, spending of federal dollars

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Brett Rowland | The Center Square

(The Center Square) – More than 17 veterans die per day from suicide in the United States.

Mission Roll Call wants President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to make the prevention of veteran suicides its top priority. 

Mission Roll Call Executive Director Cole Lyle said change within the Veterans Health Administration, which is the largest integrated health care network in the United States, has been slow. That's partly due to its size. The Veterans Health Administration has 1,255 health care facilities that serve 9 million enrolled veterans annually.

"It's an enormous challenge to successfully implement changes or policies nationwide," Lyle said in an interview. "Most local directors have veteran medical centers or integrated service networks have enormous flexibility to direct programs and budgets in a way that is within the Secretary's priorities, which is why we've advocated to make it their No. 1 priority so that it would send a clear message to the local folks to be laser-focused on this issue of preventing veteran suicide."

Lyle, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, later served as an adviser to senior leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs and on veteran policy in the U.S. Senate before heading up Mission Roll Call, a veteran advocacy group. Mission Roll Call, based in Georgia, aims to be "a movement that gives every veteran a voice on the issues that are most important to them," according to its website.

More U.S. veterans die by suicide each year than non-veterans per capita. The suicide rate for veterans in 2019 was 52.3 percent higher than non-veterans, according to the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention annual report issued in September. In 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, 6,261 veterans died by suicide, 399 fewer than in 2018, according to the report

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"The suicide rate has been very high for decades and VA's numbers, according to their internal data, is 17 veterans per day, which equates to 6,205 a year," Lyle said. "A long time ago, active-duty and veteran suicides eclipsed actual combat causalities in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan."

The average number of veteran suicides per day in 2019 was 17.2. That's a 4.5 percent increase from 16.4 in 2001. During the same 18-year period, the average number of suicides per day among U.S. adults rose 55.0 percent, from 81 in 2001 to 125.6 in 2019, according to a VA report. Among the average 17.2 veteran suicides per day in 2019, an estimated 10.4 per day were veterans who had not had an encounter with the Veterans Health Administration in 2018 or 2019.

"So this has been an issue for many, many years. Congress has tried to attack by funding heavily traditional approaches to treatment, which the VA views as primarily a mental health problem," he said. "Unfortunately, that has not objectively worked to this point and I think it is because suicide is not inherently a mental health problem. At the moment of decision, it could be any number of things or a conglomeration of things that lead a veteran down that path."

The funding available to the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased steadily since fiscal year 2018, when it had $229.9 billion in total budget resources. The department's total budget resources for 2022 were $339.3 billion, according to federal spending figures

"The VA has robustly funded traditional treatments for mental health, i.e. pharmacological or psychological approaches to this, but 50 percent of the veterans in the United States don't use or aren't engaged with the Department of Veterans Affairs," Lyle said. "And in their most recent budget, they only included $497 million into suicide prevention outreach efforts. That is one-tenth of one percent their largest budget request in history, this year, which is $301 billion."

President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act in 2020. That act included funding for community organizations outside of the VA that have more interactions with veterans.

Lyle said that two years later, money from the program still hasn't been released and won't be until later this year.

"It underscores the lack of urgency at the enterprise level of the VA," he said.

Funding for the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program, which was included in the Hannon Act, is expected to be released this September or October, Lyle said. 

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The Department of Veterans Affairs' 2023 budget request of $497 million for suicide prevention will provide $55.8 million for the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program for grants for community-based suicide prevention efforts. The agency's total budget request was $301.4 billion in fiscal year 2023, a 13.3 percent increase above fiscal 2022 enacted levels, according to the agency. Between 2001 and 2019, the veteran population decreased 23.1 percent from 25.7 million in 2001 to 19.8 million in 2019, according to the VA's annual report on veteran suicides.

Lyle said groups across the country are working to address the problem in different ways. 

The Boulder Crest Foundation is a Virginia-based organization that runs a program for post-traumatic stress disorder help for veterans and first responders. Another group, Florida-based K9s For Warriors, provides trained service dogs to military veterans dealing with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. Merging Vets and Players, based in Los Angeles, gets veterans together with professional athletes for workout sessions and time to talk about the transition to life after the game and life after combat service. Fox Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer and former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer founded the nonprofit group in 2015. Lyle said both veterans and professional athletes deal with similar issues after leaving the field or leaving service, including those with injuries.

"There are organizations out there that are attacking this problem in their own unique ways and are seeing success, but they are not necessarily traditional approaches that the VA deems have enough scientific evidence behind them," Lyle said. "We need to be trying everything we can because what has been utilized thus far isn't working."

The Department of Veterans Affairs also has a reputation problem, which Lyle said can make some veterans less inclined to use Veterans Affairs services. 

"[Veterans] may be more willing to engage with a local organization that tries some of these non-traditional approaches to treatment," Lyle said.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.