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  • Suicidal Veterans 002

    Washington (CNN)Burdened by suicidal thoughts, Justin Miller, a 33-year-old Veteran from Minnesota, reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs in February for help, telling responders on the VA crisis line that he had access to firearms.

    Miller was advised to visit his local VA emergency department, which he did immediately.

    According to an inspector general report, Miller was admitted to the Minneapolis mental health unit after he described in detail symptoms of severe emotional anguish to VA clinicians.

    After four days under observation, he was discharged.

    Miller exited the hospital upon being released from care but never left the facility's grounds that day.

    Police found him dead in his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound less than 24 hours later.

    With the permission of Miller's parents, Minnesota Democrat Rep. Tim Walz, the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, shared this tragic story during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday as lawmakers addressed the issue of suicide prevention among Veterans and former service members.

    "It is infuriating to know that there is a possibility that Justin's death could have been prevented. It should outrage us all that an entire health care system failed at something so serious and that it claimed to be their highest clinical priority," Walz said.

    Investigators were unable to determine "that any one, or some combination, was a causal factor" in Miller's death, despite identifying several "deficits in care provided to the patient."

    However, the investigation did find that staff members at the Minnesota medical center, including the suicide prevention coordinator, did not properly follow protocol while handling Miller's case and, according to Walz, failed to utilize the three-step REACH VET process, in which a clinician can assess a Veteran's risk of suicide so that he or she receives the proper level of care.

    "This is profoundly unacceptable," the Minnesota Democrat said about the inspector general's findings, which he called "deeply disturbing."

    And that frustration was only compounded by the fact that this was not the first time the inspector general had investigated many of these shortcomings.

    "The finding that the Minneapolis VA failed to sufficiently sustain relevant recommendations OIG made in 2012 should outrage us all," he said.

    Paul Sherbo, a spokesman for the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, told CNN that their "deepest condolences go out to Justin Miller's family and loved ones" and said that in response to his suicide and the inspector general's review, they have redoubled their efforts "to ensure every Veteran receives the best possible care. This includes improving care collaboration across departments and disciplines -- from initial treatment and planning to discharge and medication management -- and engaging family members in Veterans' mental health treatment plans, whenever possible."

    Sherbo added that the Minneapolis VA Health Care System has started implementing the inspector general's recommendations and would complete all but one this year. He also encouraged Veterans in crisis to visit the nearest VA health care facility, where they can receive same-day urgent primary and mental health care services, and provided the 24-hour national suicide prevention hotline: 1 (800) 273-8255.

    Young Veterans at risk

    The circumstances surrounding Miller's death, including his age and the use of a firearm, also seem to highlight two of the major issues related to Veteran suicide, according to data outlined in a new report released by the VA on Wednesday.

    The suicide rate among younger Veterans who, like Miller, fall between the ages of 18 and 34, continues to increase, a VA analysis of suicide data from 2005 to 2016 reveals.

    "Rates of suicide were highest among younger Veterans (ages 18--34) and lowest among older Veterans (ages 55 and older). However, because the older Veteran population is the largest, this group accounted for 58.1 percent of Veteran suicide deaths in 2016," the report says.

    The use of firearms as a method of suicide also remains high, according to the data, as the percentage of suicide deaths that involved firearms rose from 67% in 2015 to 69.4% in 2016.

    Although the overall number of suicides among Veterans decreased slightly between 2015 and 2016, the VA is bracing for an increase over the next five years as thousands of Vietnam Veterans enter mid-60s, joining what is already the largest age group.

    Additionally, VA officials acknowledged that the average daily number of Veterans who take their own lives has held steady for years despite efforts to combat the problem.

    "In 2016, about 20 current or former service members died by suicide each day. Of these, six had been in recent VA health care and 14 had not," VA spokesman Curtis Cashour told CNN, explaining that Wednesday's suicide prevention report defines Veterans "as those who had been activated for federal military service and were not currently serving at the time of their death."

    "VA also presents the yearly suicide count of never federally activated former Guardsmen and Reservists," he said.

    This report "simply reiterates what many of us have known for a long time: that our fight to end the tragic epidemic of Veteran suicide is far from over," Walz said in a statement.

    "We must continue to work together to provide Veterans with immediate access to quality, culturally competent mental healthcare and make bipartisan progress toward eliminating Veteran suicide entirely," he said.

    VA officials have said they would prefer to move away from using the per-day metric as an indicator of suicide rates, arguing that it does not account for changes in population size and can be misleading.

    But for now, lawmakers and department officials seem to believe that number appropriately underscores the severity of the issue.

    "Most of us have heard VA's staggering and heartbreaking statistic that every day, twenty Veterans end their own lives. Twenty," Republican Rep. Phil Roe, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said during Thursday's hearing ahead of testimony from several suicide prevention experts.

    "We also know that over the past several years VA has invested significant resources towards addressing that number which stubbornly has not changed... We have the expertise. We have the support of the President. We can and must reduce suicide among Veterans. There is no excuse not to," he said.

    Where is the money going?

    President Donald Trump's recently confirmed VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Senate lawmakers Wednesday that suicide prevention is a top priority for the department under his leadership and noted that the VA published "a comprehensive national Veteran suicide prevention strategy that encompasses a broad range of bundled prevention activities to support the Veterans who receive care in the VA health care system as well as those who do not come to us for care."

    He also highlighted the executive order signed by Trump in January intended to assist service members and Veterans during their transition from uniformed service to civilian life, "focusing on the first 12 months after separation from service, a critical period marked by a high risk for suicide."

    But despite a new budget of more than $200 billion, some critics argue that the VA continues to spend its money in the wrong ways.

    "Senior leaders like awareness campaigns and spend millions of dollars on them. They make a big splash in the media. It is measurable in how many outputs -- "views" or "hits" websites or social media pages get --- but does not generate outcomes," according to Jacqueline Garrick of the Whistleblowers for America.

    "These campaigns do not work because they cannot change behavior," she said in a statement to Congressional lawmakers.

    Rajeev Ramchand, a suicide prevention expert at the Rand Corp., told CNN that "while it may make people feel good, there is very little evidence that public awareness campaigns have a significant impact on suicide rates.

    "We do have evidence that public screening at emergency departments can reduce future suicide attempts," he said.

    However, he did note that areas with less evidence "should not be ignored as a comprehensive view of Veteran suicide prevention requires a thorough understanding of the environment where those events are occurring."

    In addition to developing and addressing the limitations around analytical tools like REACH VET, Ramchand told CNN that there are also a lot of things that "we know work," including initiatives that promote screening patients at emergency departments and then identifying those who are high-risk so that they receive the appropriate care.

    "Promoting quality evidence-based care... we know these things work, so let's get people to do them and do them more systematic way," he said.

    Troubling allegations

    In a written statement submitted to Congress, Garrick also said that her organization has been contacted by several VA employees who shared troubling accounts of workplace dysfunction that are having a direct impact of the quality of care provided and seem to undermine the programs currently in place.

    "At one VA medical center, a suicide prevention coordinator reported that they do not have time to complete suicide assessments or write prevention plans with every Veteran who potentially needs one because of the case load and its complexity," Garrick said.

    "She had 35 patients at one time. Administrators directed to note patients as 'moderate risk' for suicide so as not to raise red flags in the system. When a Veteran died by suicide on VA property, her supervisor refused to conduct a root cause analysis because that would be too time consuming," she added.

    According to Garrick, this VA employee asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation for speaking out.

    CNN has independently contacted the employee and agreed withhold their name and place of work at the request of the individual.

    When asked for comment about the broader issue raised in the whistleblower statement, VA spokesman Curtis Cashour would only say: "VA asked CNN for specific details regarding these allegations so the department could look into them, and CNN could not provide them."

    "CNN's publishing of such vague allegations without any details that would allow the department to investigate them is highly irresponsible because it does nothing to help fix any issues that may exist and could actually discourage Veterans from seeking VA care," Cashour said.

    Griffin Anderson, a spokesman for the Democrats on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told CNN that lawmakers take the allegations in the Whistleblowers of America report seriously and that the statement "certainly alludes to an alarming and unacceptable trend that we are going to look into."

    While the committee has not received a formal complaint pertaining to this specific allegation, Anderson said that lawmakers would work with the suicide coordinator in question to pursue an OIG investigation should they come forward.

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  • Comprehensive Outreach 001

     

    Every death by suicide is a tragedy, and we will not relent in our efforts to connect Veterans who are experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis with lifesaving support. That’s why VA has made it a top priority to prevent suicide among the 20 million Veterans nationwide. To ensure that all Veterans, their families and caregivers have access to lifesaving resources and support, VA is continually broadening its outreach efforts to deliver important messages and educate Veterans where they live, work and thrive.

    Guided by the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, VA is using a comprehensive outreach approach across many different communications channels. This approach considers the fact that only about 30 percent of Veterans use VA health care — underscoring the need for innovative ways to connect Veterans and their loved ones to resources and information. Some of VA’s outreach efforts include:

    • Earned media – Working directly with media organizations enables VA to disseminate information about resources and articles on new developments, such as this recent op-ed highlighting our partnership with AMVETS.
    • Events – Hosting tables at resource fairs gives VA an opportunity to connect face-to-face with Veterans who might not directly reach out to VA, providing them valuable information about benefits, employment and resources.
    • Social media – Using social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter gives VA leaders an opportunity to directly connect with the public and respond to their questions through forums such as the #ExploreVA Facebook Live event.
    • Public service announcements (PSAs) – VA has produced and distributed numerous inspiring PSAs that air on television networks nationwide. For example, the recent “Facing the Challenge” PSA highlights the importance of having an open conversation with people in your life who may be going through a difficult time.
    • Paid media – Using a combination of digital advertising and traditional advertising on billboards and in print, VA educates people about the ways they can help the Veterans in their lives through the #BeThere campaign and other suicide prevention resources for supporting Veterans.
    • Partnerships – Relationships with organizations and government agencies that regularly interact with Veteran populations help educate and engage communities and share valuable resources, such as trainings the PsychArmor Institute created in collaboration with the VA.
    • Suicide Prevention Month Campaign – Every September, this annual observance is an invaluable opportunity for VA to collaborate with partner organizations to help people recognize suicide risk factors and encourage everyone to “Be There” for Veterans.

    Through this all-embracing approach, VA can equip health care providers, caregivers and Veterans’ family members and friends with the information and materials they need to identify and support Veterans who may be at risk.

    “We have an unwavering commitment to our nation’s Veterans, and we’re working diligently to continue increasing our outreach and ensure that anyone who may come in contact with a Veteran at risk has the tools they need to help,” said Dr. Keita Franklin, executive director of suicide prevention for VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

    Although VA is continuously making strides in connecting Veterans with the support they need, this work is far from done. Over the next several years, VA is redoubling its efforts to reach Veterans in rural areas, increasing support for recently transitioned Veterans, and expanding campaigns and partnerships at the state and local levels.

    To learn more about the efforts of VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, visit https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention.

    The health and well-being of our nation’s Veterans and former service members is VA’s highest priority. Guided by data and research, VA is working with partners, Veterans’ family members and friends, and the community to ensure that Veterans and former service members get the right care whenever they need it. To learn about the resources available for Veterans and how you can #BeThere for a Veteran as a VA employee, family member, friend, community partner or clinician, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/resources.asp.

    If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

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  • Suicide Pushes VA

     

    Your kid can grow up, even join the Army and go to war, and you'll still do dad things when he comes back. David Toombs would make his son lunch.

    "I always made him extra, just in case he got hungry or he wanted a snack or he was running low on money. So I made his lunch like a typical dad," says Toombs.

    Toombs worked right next to his son, John, at a steel die shop in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

    John took the job after leaving the Army, but he couldn't leave his memories of Afghanistan behind so easily. He developed a drug problem that landed him in the residential treatment program at the Murfreesboro Veterans Affairs center.

    It's meant to be an intensive therapeutic atmosphere, but it also demands strict discipline, and on the morning of Nov. 22, 2016, John was abruptly kicked out for being late to take his medications.

    Later that day, his father came to pick him up.

    "I said, 'Come on John, let's go, I don't want to leave you out here,' " David Toombs recalls. But the 32-year-old didn't want to leave.

    "He said, 'I'm gonna be OK. I'm gonna sleep in the emergency room, go see the patients' advocate and the director in the morning, and try to get back in the program,' " Toombs recalls.

    John loitered around the campus all night. His father believes he went to the emergency room and was turned away; the Department of Veterans Affairs denies it. Sometime before dawn, John recorded a video on his phone.

    "When I asked for help, they opened up a Pandora's box inside of me and just kicked me out the door," Toombs said, "that's how they treat Veterans 'round here."

    In the message, he thanks the people who did help.

    "Some of you I love more than the whole wide world," he says and it ends.

    Then John went to a construction site on the campus and hanged himself.

    A struggle to improve

    Murfreesboro was, at the time, one of the lowest-rated VA medical centers in the country. It's part of a triangle of three VA centers — in Nashville, Memphis and Murfreesboro — that all had one star out of a possible five in the department's internal rating system.

    Most of the complaints the hospitals receive are about access rather than care. NPR heard complaints from a half-dozen Veterans who get their care at Murfreesboro. They described driving long distances only to find that their appointments had been canceled.

    Army Vet Kenny Yates said that happened to him repeatedly last year.

    "I would show up for my appointments early, and they'd be canceled while I was in the waiting room," says Yates. "They canceled while I was there and then mailed it to me like they had canceled ahead of time."

    Another Murfreesboro Vet, Dan Stott, says he was turned away from getting mental health care because he wasn't acutely suicidal or homicidal.

    When Yates and Stott complained to the White House Veterans' hotline, they did get a meeting with the new director of the VA medical centers in Nashville and Murfreesboro, who is herself a Vet.

    Former Navy Capt. Jennifer Vedral-Baron previously ran U.S. military hospitals. VA sent her to Tennessee in 2016 to help turn the medical centers around.

    "Study after study has shown that the VA does very well in quality measures, but across the board, we don't do so well in patient satisfaction," she says.

    Vedral-Baron says the VA in Nashville and Murfreesboro has better patient outcomes than local private care and can take advantage of affiliations with local medical schools like Vanderbilt. Since she has been in charge, the centers' ratings have gone up from one star to two stars.

    Some of the fixes to customer service have been basic, she says, like retraining staff how to take in patients on the phone.

    She also fired 47 staff members and moved many others into different posts. She hired a former Army doctor who served in Iraq to oversee mental health care. Dr. John Jackson had previously worked in the private sector, and he brags that the VA has much better results and access, including same-day appointments for mental health.

    "I can get you in here, that's what I love about this place," says Jackson.

    He has taken Murfreesboro's low-star rating as a challenge but says there is more to the VA's metrics than just the numbers. Improving the rate of follow-up calls to patients, for example, is a common-sense way to take care of mental health patients, says Jackson.

    Jackson wasn't working at Murfreesboro when John Toombs killed himself. Vedral-Baron was only three months on the job. It still makes her emotional.

    "My heart continues to go out for this family. I did meet with the family not long after Sgt. Toombs' death. We cried together, we talked about the future," she says.

    David Toombs says that made an impression.

    "I can honestly say that I have the highest regards for her," he says. "She was a Navy captain. She could only say what she was allowed to say. But she really really was emotional about it."

    A lawsuit and a memorial

    It was at that meeting that Vedral-Baron brought up the idea of naming the new building — where John Toombs died — the "Sgt. John Toombs Residential Rehabilitation Treatment Facility."

    David Toombs supports the idea, and it's now on a bill moving through Congress.

    But it's also an awkward thing, because Toombs is suing the VA for $2 million. He says that staff at the program callously kicked his son out and didn't follow the VA's own rules to make sure he was safe and stable. Toombs' suit claims that the director of the program was making an example out of John and should have known he was a high risk for suicide. In court documents, the VA denies that.

    David Toombs says he wants the people responsible for kicking his son out of the residential program to lose their jobs, but he says he doesn't hate the VA.

    "As far as saying I'm anti-VA? We don't need shut it down; no, we need to fix it," Toombs says.

    "That problem is the same as what happened with my son. You've got bad apples. And there's really hardworking people out there that care. They do good jobs, but unfortunately circumstances like this, they get overshadowed. Because we only hear the negative about the VA," he says.

    Vedral-Baron said she couldn't discuss the lawsuit. Since the suicide, all the senior staff at the residential program have left or been reassigned. But the only person who was fired from the program is a nurse, Rosalinde Burch. Burch said in an affidavit that she was fired for speaking out about mistreatment of John Toombs.

    Vedral-Baron said she couldn't comment Burch's firing because of privacy concerns.

    She would say that she is still in favor of naming the new building after John Toombs, even though it makes some of the VA staff uncomfortable. She hopes it will help to destigmatize suicide and mental health and be part of improving the VA.

    "I'm from the Navy, I look at it like a carrier," she says. "It doesn't turn quickly, but when it does start to turn, it's kinda hard to stop it. That's where I feel like we are right now."

    Congress turns at about the same speed, but the bill to name the new building after Sgt. John Toombs may become law this fall.

    Everywhere David Toombs looks reminds him of John — the grocery store in town, the sprawling VA campus he drives by and the steel die shop where he still works. He used to be a supervisor, but he asked to move back to a less demanding job because his thoughts of his son are too distracting. Toombs says if the lawsuit is successful, he'll use the money to fund a scholarship and other Veterans' causes.

    "My son died because of their arrogance and negligence," he says. "I can't honestly tell you I'll ever have days or weeks of happiness again, but if I can direct my life helping Veterans somehow, at least I'll maybe find some peace."

    Source

  • Vet Suicide Conv

     

    WASHINGTON — Melissa Bryant said the 5,520 flags placed along the National Mall Wednesday to illustrate the toll of Veteran suicide this year alone were more than just a visual reminder of the scope of the problem.

    “When we came out here this morning to plant these flags, every one of us had a friend or family member in mind,” said Bryant, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Some of us standing here could have been one of these flags, but for an intervention.”

    The event — which has become an unfortunately annual occurrence for Veterans advocates — is part of a broader push in recent weeks by lawmakers, Veterans groups and Veterans Affairs officials to bring the issue of suicide among former military members back into public consciousness.

    Last month, VA officials released new data that showed the overall rate of suicides among Veterans has held steady at around 20 a day for roughly a decade, but researchers are seeing a troubling increase in the rate of younger Veterans taking their lives.

    Those realities come despite a concerned push in recent years by policy makers who have increased crisis intervention and mental health treatment resources for Veterans.

    Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and vice ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the next step for Congress is to ensure that VA facilities are properly staffed to respond to the needs of suicidal Veterans, and to better identify what programs are working to help stem the problem.

    Last week, in a hearing before that committee, health experts said they see a gap in integrating those lessons learned into local community services, to provide a broader safety net for Veterans in distress.

    But to help fix that gap that, advocates said, they need to remind the public of the problem.

    “I have seen far too many Veterans and members of my community fall to suicide,” Said Kristen Rouse, founding director of the New York City Veterans Alliance, at Wednesday’s event. “What we see behind us represents a national crisis … These are Veterans from your home state, from your hometown, from your home city.”

    During Wednesday’s event — held between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument, in an area with heavy tourist foot traffic — dozens of onlookers stopped to take pictures of the display and talk to the advocates involved.

    Stephanie Keegan, whose son Daniel served in Afghanistan but died in 2016 because of delays in receiving treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder, said she was grateful to share her families struggles with those visitors.

    “It absolutely makes a difference,” she said. “Not enough people understand the problem and the consequences of our wars. As a country, we need to pay more attention.”

    To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

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  • Help Homeless Vets

     

    Sgt. Michael Boyd suffered from PTSD, opioid addiction after returning from tour in Afghanistan

    MANCHESTER, N.H. —

    A Marine who passed away in October is continuing to help others even after his death.

    Family and friends of Sgt. Michael Boyd gathered at the FaithBridge Church in Manchester over the weekend to help homeless Veterans.

    Boyd’s loved ones helped pack emergency blankets, gloves, razors and other essentials into bags.

    “In an effort to do something good with our grief, Kelly and I, she actually suggested we take some Veterans to lunch, and it sort of turned into this incredibly huge event in Michael's honor,” Dawn Nicholls, Boyd’s girlfriend, said.

    Boyd came home from a tour in Afghanistan suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and an opioid addiction. Like many others, he slipped into homelessness.

    "It's sort of the forgotten population that deserves so much respect, and this was the best way we could honor Michael,” Nicholls said.

    Boyd died in October, but family members were determined that his name would stand for something that would help others.

    "We're carrying on what he would've done if he had been here," Kelly Pilotte, Boyd’s mother, said.

    Pilotte and other family members packed the bags on what would've been Boyd's 32nd birthday last week. They also provided lunch, a barber and resources for homeless Veterans.

    “We just want to treat these Vets today as they deserve to be treated. I mean, how many times will people walk by homeless people and won't even look at them?” Pilotte said.

    Red Sox hats, which Boyd always wore, were given to those at the event. The hats, which were donated by Keller Williams Realty, included the phone number to the Veterans’ crisis unit stitched inside.

    "Michael would definitely be here, hugging them all,” Pilotte said.

    The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1 or by texting a message to 838255.

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  • Suicide Prevention Month

     

    The Army is committed to the health, safety, and well-being of its Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians, and families. To emphasize this commitment, the Army is joining the nation in observing September as National Suicide Prevention Month.

    Every person has a responsibility and commitment to reach out and help fellow Soldiers, civilians, or family members who need the strength of the Army. Together, a difference can be made by helping those who are at risk and suicides can be prevented.

    Effective suicide prevention requires everyone to be aware of the risk factors for suicide and know how to respond.

    If a person seems suicidal, the time to take action is now. Talk to that person before it is too late. Be direct and talk openly. Listen, and allow them to express their feelings.

    Battle buddies are the front line in surveillance and detection of high-risk behavior. Be a buddy, learn the warning signs of suicide, and find out how to help someone threatening suicide.

    Employ ACE

    Ask, care, escort, or ACE, is an easy-to-remember acronym that any Soldier, leader, family member, or civilian can use.

    • Ask your buddy – Have the courage to ask the question, but stay calm. Ask the question directly, “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
    • Care for your buddy – Remove any means that could be used for self-injury. Calmly control the situation; do not use force. Actively listen to produce relief.

    Escort your buddy — Never leave your buddy alone. Escort to the chain of command, a chaplain, a behavioral health professional, or a primary care provider.

    Know the signs

    Do you know the warning signs for suicide?

    If anyone you know exhibits the following signs, get help as soon as possible by contacting a mental health professional or by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.

    • Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself.
    • Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills, or other means.
    • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person.
    • Feeling hopeless.
    • Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge.
    • Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities.
    • Feeling trapped.
    • Increasing alcohol or drug use.
    • Withdrawing from friends, family, and society. This includes feeling anxious or agitated, being unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time. It also includes experiencing dramatic mood changes or seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life.

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  • Vets Urge VA To Prescribe

    Though medical marijuana is legal in most states, the Department of Veterans Affairs will neither recommend nor prescribe it because of a longstanding federal law.

    Charles Claybaker spent five tours in Afghanistan, kicking in doors and taking out terrorists. But an aircraft crash in 2010 left the Army Ranger with a crushed leg, hip and spine and a traumatic brain injury.

    Army doctors loaded him up with a dozen prescriptions to numb the pain and keep his PTSD in check.

    But Claybaker said the pills transformed him from a highly-trained fighter into a zombie for at least two hours a day.

    "I'm talking mouth open, staring into space," Claybaker said.

    Claybaker decided he would rather live in constant pain. He took himself off opioids and suffered for eight months.

    Then, after retiring and moving back to St. Petersburg, Fla. he discovered marijuana - and he said it changed his life.

    "I can just take a couple of puffs sometimes. It just depends on the day and what's going on or how bad it is," Claybaker said.

    He says marijuana relieved his pain and helped with his anxiety. Claybaker says marijuana also helped him focus and he finally started feeling more like himself.

    "I was a 2013 gold medalist at the Warrior Games in archery, I graduated summa cum laude from Eckerd College, I started my own charity. I adopted my 14-year-old brother who is now on a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State," he said. "I understand that marijuana has some ills, but for me personally, it absolutely helped me do all those things."

    In order to get the drug, though, he had to break the law. Though medicinal marijuana is legal in Florida, the federal government says it's a crime to use it. Claybaker and other soldiers can't get prescriptions from the VA, and their insurance won't cover the cost.

    Under VA policies, the agency says it will not recommend marijuana nor help Veterans obtain it. The VA says Veterans who use marijuana will not be denied VA care, but they need to obtain the substance themselves and pay for it out-of-pocket. A month's supply from a dispensary can be more than $500.

    Claybaker was among more than a dozen Veterans recently profiled in a 20-page report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. They're pushing the federal government to reclassify marijuana. The Vets are using the drug to treat conditions ranging from pain to PTSD.

    But the Veterans face an uphill battle. That's because marijuana is classified as a schedule 1 drug, which means it has no medical value. The classification, along with the its federal illegal status, means there hasn't been a lot of medical research on marijuana.

    "We're realizing that there's a lot of holes here in our knowledge," said Ziva Cooper, an associate professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University Medical Center.

    Last year, Cooper and other researchers published a study that evaluated 10,000 scientific papers in which marijuana was referenced. They found substantial evidence that chronic pain can be reduced by marijuana and substances known as cannabinoids that are found in it. Those cannabinoids include a widely sold product known as CBD.

    But, the report found no scientific studies on marijuana's use for PTSD.

    "We need those rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to inform us if cannabis can actually help with this, or cannabinoids," Cooper said.

    Janine Lutz said marijuana could have saved her son, John, who died from suicide after serving as a Marine Lance Corporal in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    He returned home to Davie, Fla. in 2011 with knee and back injuries and a severe case of PTSD.

    In 2013, doctors at the VA prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for his PTSD, despite a note in his records that it had led to a previous suicide attempt. His mom said he was dead within a week.

    "I would call that a pharmaceutically-induced suicide," Janine Lutz said. "And I actually sued the VA for that and I won my case."

    Lutz received $250,000 in a settlement with the VA.

    Today Lutz runs the Live To Tell Foundation, which supports military Veterans. Families of Vets who died by suicide send her their photos, which she laminates and links to her traveling Memorial Wall. Her "Buddy Up" events bring Veterans together so they can form bonds and look out for one another.

    It was at those events that she learned how many Veterans self-medicate with marijuana. Lutz said the government needs to act.

    "Stop playing games with the lives of America's sons and daughters, and if they want cannabis, give it to them and stop giving them these psychotropic dangerous drugs that are destroying their bodies and their minds," Lutz said.

    The American Legion polled its 2 million members and found 92 percent favored marijuana research and 81 percent support federal legalization.

    The group has since joined in the effort to push Congress to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug.

    So far, that request has gone nowhere.

    VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he has to follow the rules.

    "I'm not a doctor, never played one on television. I'm not a scientist," Wilkie said in an interview. "I will follow the federal law. And the federal law is very clear."This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and Veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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  • James Woods

     

    Updated: After actor James Woods used his Twitter account to call attention to a Veteran who sent a distressed tweet, authorities located the man who had tweeted he was contemplating death by suicide.

    "After numerous attempts to locate (Andrew) MacMasters yesterday, several of our officers were able to make contact with him to verify his well-being as well as ensuring that the appropriate resources were made available to him in reference to his tweet," Maitland (Fla.) Police Department Lieutenant Louis Y. Grindle told USA TODAY.

    The "Salvador" actor, 71, alerted the Orlando Police Department Monday night and asked authorities to perform a wellness check on MacMasters, a former Marine.

    "A man named Andrew MacMasters just said on @Twitter that he is sitting in a parking lot and is going to kill himself," Wood tweeted to his nearly 2 million followers. "He’s sitting with his dog, a black lab, possibly in a WalMart parking lot."

    Woods' plea for help included a screenshot from MacMasters' Twitter account, which has since been deleted.

    "I'm on Twitter every day, I retweet all the time but this is the first tweet I've ever written," user @macmasters_a tweeted Thursday. "I'm (a) good guy, I'm a Veteran, I love America. I'm gonna kill myself tonight. I've lost everything I have nobody, nobody cares."

    Woods responded to MacMasters' cry for help in a series of tweets, initially asking the Veteran to "tell me where you are."

    "We can talk. I don’t care what anybody thinks. Do you? Let’s have a conversation. Just you… and I," Woods said in one tweet to MacMasters, adding in another, "I’m following you now, so you can DM me. We can talk privately. Or we can talk openly right here. Lot of people worried about you right now."

    The actor tried to engage the distraught Veteran: "Someone said you’re Andrew. In Orlando? Im not trying to trap you. Let’s just talk. You also have your dog. Your little schnoot. Boy or girl?"

    "So think about this. A lot of Vets, I understand, have come to where you are tonight," Woods continued. "If you could just push this decision off tonight, at least, maybe you would also inspire another Vet to seek help. You could save another man, too. By waiting to do this."

    In 2016, the most recent data available, the Department of Veterans Affairs said about 20 Veterans a day take their own lives, a suicide rate 1.5 times greater than Americans who never served in the military. And Veterans accounted for 14 percent of all adult suicide deaths in the U.S. in 2016, even though only 8 percent of the population has served.

    In a last-ditch effort, the actor tried to comfort MacMasters. "I’m driving cross country. Sitting in a motel room. I have all night. I know that sounds dorky, but here I am! I would love to talk. Just talk. I won’t push you into anything," he said.

    Once it was clear the suicidal Veteran could no longer be reached on Twitter after deleting his social media account, Woods turned to his followers to gather information on MacMasters' location.

    The "Casino" actor learned his home address and forward it to authorities in Maitland, Florida, who promptly checked his residence. MacMasters was not there.

    "If only Andrew could see the THOUSANDS of fellow Americans who are pulling for him. It’s like he’s lost behind enemy lines and we are cheering him home, willing him to survive," Woods tweeted. "Andrew, do this for the 'other 21' Vets a day who don’t make it home from the darkness. Stay alive!"

    Woods continued to update the search on Twitter, sharing tweets from people who notified MacMasters' family, including the Veteran's mother and brother.

    Maitland Police Public Information Officer Lt. Louis Y. Grindle informed USA TODAY Tuesday morning that authorities were able to reach MacMasters, though his whereabouts are unknown.

    "Our agency was able to make contact with him by phone earlier this morning, where he advised he was OK but did not wish to have contact with law enforcement," the emailed statement read. "Our officers are still working to try and physically locate him to determine his well-being."

    Woods, who frequently uses his Twitter page to share his conservative political views, recently used his account to help link people together with family members following the California wildfires.

    Source

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  • Curb Vet Suicide

     

    Last week, the bipartisan Support for Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act was introduced by Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), and co-sponsored by Reps. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and Mike Bost (R-Ill.). As a woman who served three tours, I breathed a sigh of relief seeing Congress step up and take action to begin to address our nation's worsening crisis of not properly treating Veterans with PTSD which has led to an epidemic of suicides.

    The bill will require a review of the current training, workload and staffing at Veterans Affairs centers and comes a month after President Trump signed an Executive Order titled "National Initiative to Empower Veterans and End Veterans Suicide." According to the White House, this order mandates the establishment of the Veteran Wellness, Empowerment and Suicide Prevention Task Force. The task force will include the secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy, Homeland Security, Labor, Education and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, assistant to the president for national security affairs, and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    What is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD? It's a psychiatric condition in people who experienced or witnessed a traumatic event like a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war, combat, rape or any other violent personal assault. PTSD used to be called "shell shock" during the first World War and then it was known as "combat fatigue" after World War II. But it doesn't only affect combat Veterans. PTSD shows up in anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, nationality or culture. Close to 3.5 percent of U.S. adults have PTSD. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD. Those of us who've had it can experience intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to our experience that last long after the traumatic event has happened. Unfortunately, PTSD is the No. 1 cause of Veteran suicides.

    Recently, the media has highlighted a bump in suicide rates at VA hospitals, especially three cases in Texas and Georgia over a 5-day time period earlier this month. The VA has released data showing 23 Veterans took their own lives at VA facilities since October of 2017.

    One issue, I personally experienced while visiting the VA, is that psychological help or counseling is only available once, and not with regularity or continuity. Just one and done.

    All the way back in 2014, news of secret waiting lists for Veterans to get a medical appointment at Veterans Administration facilities was revealed. An audit unearthed rampant problems, including the fact that more than three quarters of VA hospitals and clinics had manipulated data about wait times. At the time, allegations arose about whether these secret delays led to 40 Arizona Veterans dying from lack of timely medical care by the VA. The controversy led to the resignation of then Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

    The main focus in all of this discussion has got to be on the tragic suicide epidemic that claims 22 Veterans lives every single day.

    Over the past 17 years, more than 8,000 U.S. casualties have occurred in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Compare this to 8,000 Veterans per year committing suicide.

    The real question is why don't we consider Veterans who take their own lives as important as soldiers who die in combat?

    While deployed I watched wonderful Americans die serving our country. I also know many Veterans I personally fought alongside of who require regular monthly medical care for the trauma we experienced being on the battlefield.

    The truth is we have to diligently raise awareness of military mental health concerns, improve access for to care during and after military service, and stop turning a blind eye to Veterans who never thought they would end up back home wondering why they're having crazy thoughts.

    I would like to give a special thanks to Rep. Banks from my home state of Indiana for making this matter a top priority instead of just a campaign promise. Legislation is direly needed to enforce that my brothers and sisters are cared for after risking our lives for the rest of the nation.

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  • Be There 003

     

    Just hours before a Capitol Hill hearing Monday on how to address the problem of Veterans dying by suicide, a Veteran took his own life outside the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.

    Lawmakers said that the incident was a painful reminder for all the effort and funding put into suicide prevention in recent years, progress on the issue has been frustratingly inconsistent.

    “Two weeks ago, three other Veterans committed suicide at VA facilities in five days,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said. “So far, we have seen seven this year.

    “It’s clear we are not doing enough to support Veterans in crisis.”

    Both Democrats and Republicans in the House are pledging to try and fix that in coming months, launching a series of hearings and legislative pushes to address the lingering problem of Veterans suicide.

    Takano and committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said they are optimistic they can advance bipartisan legislation on the issue, to include more research and monitoring within VA facilities.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a press conference ahead of the hearing to highlight the new congressional focus, called the issue an “uncomfortable, urgent crisis” and promised to work closely with Republican Party leaders on finding answers.

    Preventing suicides has been VA’s top clinical priority for the past two years, and lawmakers noting that spending on support programs have more than doubled since 2005. Despite that, the rate of suicide among Veterans has remained steady over the last 10 years, with about 20 a day across the country.

    Veterans Affairs officials have noted the uptick in Veterans who have died by suicide in public spaces at department facilities — 25 in the last 18 months — does not reflect a statistically significant increase in the overall suicide problem.

    “But all of us feel these losses,” said Dr. Richard Stone, acting head of the Veterans Health Administration.

    Lawmakers and Veterans groups expressed frustration at the department, not for their effort, but for their results.

    “We must confront an uncomfortable and deeply troubling truth: VA’s current efforts and approaches to suicide prevention and mental health are not working,” said Joe Chennelly, executive director at AMVETS. “How do we know this? In the simplest of terms, the suicide numbers aren’t decreasing.”

    Officials at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America lamented that “we are far from a long-term sustainable solution to address Veterans suicide.”

    Earlier this year, President Donald Trump announced a year-long task force review of the Veterans suicide issue, engaging experts across multiple departments to find new ideas. The House effort echoes that move, but lawmakers hope to bring legislative force along with that.

    Among the ideas being discussed at other committee hearings later this week: expanding eligibility for health care services, expanding research on suicides, mandating more reporting by VA on suicides on campuses and increased monitoring of prescriptions by VA doctors.

    Shelli Avenevoli, deputy director at the National Institutes of Mental Health, said in recent years officials have seen successes with a host of new approaches, such as universal mental health screening for all patients and detailed follow-up plans for suicidal patients. Those ideas may also be included in coming House plans.

    Takano, whose uncle — a Vietnam Veteran — died by suicide decades ago, said lawmakers are open to any innovations that could help with the issue.

    VA officials said they are open to the conversation, calling challenge a national problem, not just one shouldered by their staff.

    They did not disclose any additional details about the Cleveland suicide, which occurred early Monday morning outside of the campus’ emergency room. Stone noted that more than 240 suicides have been prevented on the grounds of VA facilities since the start of 2017, but the idea that 25 other deaths happened “with help just a few feet away is deeply troubling.”

    Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

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  • DVA Logo 29

    CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – (CLARKSVILLENOW) – The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has released a data sheet from 2016 that details the suicide rate of Veterans in Tennessee, compared to the Veteran suicide rates in the southern region and the nation; as well as the general suicide rates in Tennessee, the southern region, and the nation.

    There was a total of 156 Veteran suicides in the state of Tennessee in 2016. Broken up by age range, the numbers are as follows:

    • 18-34: 26
    • 35-54: 38
    • 55-74: 66
    • 75+: 26

    By comparison, there were 2,611 Veteran suicides in the southern region, and 6,079 in the nation.

    Further, it was found that there was a total of 1,070 general suicides in Tennessee, 17,011 in the southern region, and 43,427 in the nation.

    There was a Veteran suicide rate (based on per 100,000 people) of 32.8 in Tennessee, 30.6 in the southern region, and 30.1 in the nation. This indicates that Veteran suicide rate in Tennessee was not significantly different from the national Veteran suicide rate.

    Despite that conclusion, it was also found that the Tennessee Veteran suicide rate of 32.8 was significantly higher than the general national suicide rate, which was found to be 17.5. The general suicide rate for the southern region was found to be 18.2.

    You can view the data sheet in its entirety here.

    If you are a Veteran or a family member of a Veteran, and you struggle with depression, there are resources available to help you. If you are in the Clarksville area, one such resource is Soldiers and Families Embraced, or SAFE. SAFE is an organization dedicated to counseling and helping Veterans and Veterans’ families. For more information on SAFE, you can read about some of their methodologies and processes. You can also listen to a Clarksville’s Conversation interview with the executive director of SAFE, Lantz Smith.

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  • VA Austin TX

     

    A House Democrat is introducing legislation on Thursday aimed at addressing an uptick in Veteran suicides at Department of Veteran's Affairs facilities. In five days this month alone, three Veterans took their lives at VA facilities, including one who died by suicide in a crowded Austin, Texas, waiting room last week.

    The legislation will be introduced by Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., an Army combat Veteran and member of the House Veteran's Affairs Committee. It calls for "substantive data" from the VA regarding the trend in Veteran suicides at VA facilities.

    "Getting this data more quickly and thoroughly would guide Congress' efforts in understanding this crisis, and preventing these tragedies," Rose said. "We must ensure all Veterans have the services they need when they need them, plain and simple."

    The legislation would require the VA to notify Congress of any suicide or suicide attempt and the name of the VA facility and location where the event occurred, no later than seven days after it happens. Sixty days after the event, the VA would be required to provide even more information to Congress, including the enrollment status of the Veteran, with respect to the patient enrollment system at the VA, and the most recent encounter between the Veteran and any employee or facility of the Veterans Health Administration before the suicide or attempted suicide occurred.

    VA press secretary Curt Cashour said the VA has not yet taken a position on the bill, but that the department has been transparent about suicide and suicide attempts. He also cited a study that showed Veteran suicides occur less frequently on VA campuses than on non-VA campuses.

    It's estimated that 20 Veterans die of suicide each day, 14 of whom are outside the VA system. According to VA officials, the department has tracked 260 suicide attempts at VA facilities since beginning to track them in 2017, with 240 of those having been interrupted.

    Cashour would not discuss the specific cases of suicides at VA facilities this month, but said, "Our deepest condolences go out to the loved ones affected by these deaths."

    "Any time an unexpected death occurs at a VA facility, the department conducts a comprehensive review of the case to see if changes in policies and procedures are warranted. All VA facilities provide same-day urgent primary and mental health care serves to Veterans who need them," Cashour said.

    "Veteran suicide is a national public health crisis that we need to address -- that's why the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs has made it a top priority," said Committee Chairman Mark Takano. "Congress can help develop a response to these tragedies, but we have to know what's happening. I'm proud to support this bill to ensure Congress gets the data it needs as quickly as possible so we can work together to prevent these incidents and give Veterans in crisis the support they desperately need."

    In addition to Rose's legislation, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., put forth a bill last month that would boost funding and mental health staff at the VA, as well as seek alternative therapies and research to address Veteran suicide. Also last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order which tasked agency officials with developing a strategy to aggressively tackle the issue of Veteran suicide.

    But one leading Veterans group has called for a multi-agency investigation into what they're calling a "suicide epidemic among Veterans and service members," concerned that the White House initiative would take "at least a year to establish and launch into action."

    American Veterans, asked the inspectors general of the VA, Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to immediately launch the joint investigation following the latest deaths at VA facilities.

    Between October 2017 and November 2018, there were 19 suicides on VA campuses -- seven in parking lots -- according to AMVETS.

    AMVETS Executive Director Joseph Chenelly said that suicides at VA facilities "appear to be protests of last resort where health care systems, treatment programs, and the underlying cultures of the responsible federal agencies have failed them."

    The VA's Fiscal Year 2020 budget request calls for $222 million for suicide prevention programs.

    Any Veteran, family member, or friend concerned about a Veteran's mental health can contact the 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or text 838255.

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  • Operation Coffee

     

    Sam Floyd (pictured above) believes much can be accomplished with conversation over a cup of coffee.

    The Marine Veteran who served in Afghanistan is making his philosophy a reality with Operation Coffee, where 10 percent of every sale goes toward Veterans’ suicide prevention.

    Motivated to try and make a difference following the suicide of a Veteran friend, Floyd bought a church built in 1866 in his hometown of Campbellsport, Wisconsin, about 50 miles north of Milwaukee.

    He now operates his small-batch roasting operation out of the former First Baptist Church, which also has become his home, complete with a bell that still rings when the rope is pulled and a bedroom upstairs in the former choir loft.

    “Countless number of friends, and you hear about friend’s friends that committed suicide. I was basically sick and tired of it,” said Floyd. “So, now when I’m having a conversation over a cup of coffee with a Veteran, I always think — if I just could have had a cup of coffee with that guy, maybe he wouldn’t have decided to do it.”

    Wife encouraged he seek treatment at VA

    Despite several signs that something was not right, Floyd said it took about a decade after he got out of the Marines to start receiving treatment at the Phoenix VA at the urging of his ex-wife.

    “I was just not really understanding what I was going through in my head,” said Floyd, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2003-04. “I would sleep for a week and a half and thought that was normal. I’ll just get over it, that type of deal.”

    “The whole post-traumatic stress, whatever you want to call it, depression, was undiagnosed for a little over 10 years,” he said. “Got married, and you can’t really hide anything from your wife. But she was a huge blessing because she helped me realize what I was struggling with. So, I went to the VA, got help.”

    Floyd moved to Campbellsport and got a job at the Blue Door Coffee Co., a coffee shop on Main Street in the town of about 2,000 people.

    That’s when Floyd started Operation Coffee.

    He currently roasts two days a week, while still working at Blue Door. Each of his signature roasts bears a Veterans story on the back label of the package.

    On the Honduras Dark Whole Bean bag, the story is written by retired Marine Maj. Mark Voelker, who describes being served a cup of coffee by a friend in Al Asad, Iraq, in 2004, while recovering from a helicopter crash.

    “There is a much more to this than a cup of coffee,” Voelker wrote. “This is a process, a gift — a gift of time and, ultimately, empathy and compassion.”

    “The reason I chose coffee is because there can be that common ground, just that one common thing, and that can be a cup of coffee,” said Floyd, who still receives care at the Milwaukee VA.

    “Sam is thinking much bigger than himself,” says his boss at the Blue Door. “He’s not trying to become a millionaire. Nobody building a roastery in Campbellsport is trying to become a millionaire.

    “His hope is to create that awareness. Everybody knows there’s a problem. He just wants people to talk about it. He just believes that sitting down and talking, having conversations helps.”

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  • learn from his suicide

    The suicide of Marine Corps Veteran Justin Miller earlier this year prompted a federal review of the Minneapolis VA system. The final report released last week criticizes a communications breakdown at the VA. Meanwhile, Miller's family is still wondering what happened to him, and why he didn't get the help he needed.

    Miller had his first piano lesson at 3 years old. He took to it so fast, pretty soon he outpaced his big sister, Alissa Harrington.

    "The joke is that I'm the musical slouch of the family because I only play four instruments," she said.

    By high school, Harrington said, her brother was leading the school marching band with his trumpet. At 17, the Marines recruited him to play in the military band.

    He was proud when he knew that he was going to be a Marine, and was going to play music.

    Harrington said the family wasn't all that nervous about Miller becoming a Marine. He was in the band. It was a guaranteed assignment.

    They wanted to believe all he had to do was look sharp and blow those pretty high notes.

    But the U.S. government doesn't train Marines just to play music. And in summer 2005, the Marines sent him to the Middle East.

    "He was deployed to Iraq," said Harrington. "So he was in Iraq with his trumpet and a gun."

    Miller was assigned guard duty, standing watch over the gates of an air base.

    Something happened there that changed her brother, Harrington said. She's still piecing together the details.

    "He would tell one of us that he had to shoot camels," she said. "He'd tell another one of us that sometimes those camels had riders."

    And to the people he knew really well, he said sometimes the camels were wired with explosives. They blew up when he shot them.

    "He was a soldier, but he was a musician. That type of trauma was not something he was expecting to have to process," Harrington said.

    Miller finished his deployment and came home. He trained to become an electrician, like his dad. He played his trumpet for the Coon Rapids American Legion. He started playing piano again, as he'd done as a kid.

    Then, in February of this year, he called a Veterans crisis hotline, and checked himself into the mental health unit of the Minneapolis VA. He was having suicidal thoughts and needed help.

    After four days of treatment, Miller was released. He walked to his car, climbed in and took his own life with a gun. He was 33.

    Those last four days of Miller's life have become the subject of a federal review.

    An exhaustive report released last week by the Office of the VA Inspector General shows a breakdown of communication across the Minneapolis VA system.

    The facility employs suicide prevention coordinators who work with high-risk patients.

    But Miller was never flagged as a high-level suicide risk, so he never got that help.

    Miller told several nurses that he had easy access to guns, but denied that fact to others. No one noticed the inconsistency.

    When his parents called the VA, looking for updates, some departments didn't even know Miller had been discharged.

    It was only after that phone call when VA staff searched their parking lot and found Miller's body.

    Harrington had none of this information until the Inspector General's report was released.

    "And it was a lot of the same raw guttural emotions all over again. The same way when we found out that he had died in the first place," she said.

    She doesn't blame the doctors or nurses for what happened. She says a lack resources and funding stopped them from helping her brother.

    She hopes that telling his story will change things at the VA.

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  • Terry O Hearn

     

    Just days after his release from a VA hospital inPalo Alto,California, Army Veteran Terry O'Hearn took his own life.

    WASHINGTON, DC — Terry O'Hearn came into the world a fighter, his mother, Robin, says.

    But after serving in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, she says, he changed.

    "He wasn't as happy-go-lucky," she said. "He seemed to pull back from all of us."

    O'Hearn battled post-traumatic stress disorder for years. In 2016, he put a homemade shotgun to his chest and fired. He survived, spending the next few weeks in a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Sacramento, California.

    As her son recovered, Robin worried what he would do when he left the VA hospital. She says she begged the hospital to keep him. "He's isolated himself," she remembers saying. "Please do not let him go. Do not let him go home alone."

    He stayed in the hospital for a total of two weeks. Just days after his release, O'Hearn, 30, took his own life.

    Veterans' suicides, like O'Hearn's, are an ongoing crisis. Every day, 20 U.S. Veterans die by suicide, according to VA statistics. The VA estimated that Veterans are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as other members of the public. Their rate of suicide is increasing, just as it is rising among the general population.

    Some Veterans die by suicide at the very hospitals designed to help them. This month, three Veterans took their own lives at VA facilities in just five days.

    One Veteran shot himself in a busy waiting room at an Austin, Texas, clinic. Two others took their lives at VA centers in Georgia.

    Over the past two years, there have been more than 260 suicide attempts at VA facilities, according to the agency, though a vast majority of those attempts — 240 — were thwarted.

    In a statement, VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said, "Our deepest condolences go out to the loved ones affected by these deaths. Due to patient privacy concerns, we will not be discussing the specifics of these cases."

    RESOURCES FOR VETERANS

    But there are resources for Veterans, like the VA's crisis hotline. Eighty Veterans a day use the hotline, established in 2007, in search of emergency help. The hotline added a third call center in 2018.

    The Trump administration has also tried to address the uptick in Veterans' suicides.

    In March, President Donald Trump established a new Veteran suicide prevention task force through executive order, calling it "a tragedy of staggering proportions."

    "They kept us safe, and we're going to keep them safe," he said.

    The task force is expected to produce a report on the issue within a year.

    A year earlier, Trump had signed an executive order that provided new Veterans with mental health care for at least a year after they leave the military.

    Meanwhile, O'Hearn's mother says her mission now is to help other military families. A Veteran herself, she served eight years in the Air Force, leaving as a staff sergeant. She wants to educate other families about how to navigate the VA process and how to recognize the symptoms of PTSD.

    "I want people that are in the position that we were in to understand the process," she said. "So that maybe they could intervene. I wish that we could have intervened at some point."

    If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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  • DVA Logo 31

     

    Today the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) announced that they have again joined forces to host a biannual conference that will address suicide within the military and Veteran communities.

    Ahead of the 2019 VA/DoD Suicide Prevention Conference, scheduled Aug. 26-29, the departments are seeking abstracts for presentations, which must be submitted by

    11:59 p.m. (EST) March 29 at www.whova.com/web/vspc_201908/.

    “Suicide is a national public health concern,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “It’s critical that everyone work collectively to develop impactful solutions to suicide risk that meet the needs of America’s service members and Veterans. This conference is a chance for subject matter experts from across the country to come together and share comprehensive strategies to prevent suicide nationwide.”

    The conference is guided by the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide and the Department of Defense Strategy for Suicide Prevention, which apply the holistic public health approach to reducing suicide rates among service members and Veterans. This year’s conference theme — Many Roles. OneMission. — emphasizes the impact that individuals and communities can have in preventing suicide. VA and the DoD invite researchers, clinicians and community, nonprofit and business leaders from multiple sectors to submit abstracts for inclusion in the conference program.

    The conference location will be announced at a future date.

    To learn more about the efforts of VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention.

    Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can contact the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, send a text message to 838255 or chat online at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

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  • Donald Trump 024

     

    Today President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order titled “National Initiative to Empower Veterans and End Veterans Suicide,” which focuses on improving the quality of life for America’s Veterans and ending the tragedy of Veteran suicide.

    “As the largest integrated health care provider in the nation and a leader in developing innovative mental health and suicide prevention strategies, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is uniquely positioned to co-chair this effort with the White House,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Veterans suicide is a national public health issue that affects communities everywhere, and this executive order is a national call to action.”

    The executive order mandates the establishment of the Veteran Wellness, Empowerment and Suicide Prevention Task Force. The task force will include the Secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Energy, Homeland Security, Labor, Education and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    Within 365 days of the date of the order and working with a variety of representatives from across both the public and private sectors, the task force shall:

    Develop a comprehensive national public health roadmap outlining the specific strategies needed to lower effectively the rate of Veteran suicide, with a focus on community engagement,

    Design and propose to Congress a program for making grants to local communities, which will increase their ability to collaborate with each other, integrate service delivery and coordinate resources to Veterans, and

    Develop a national research strategy to improve the coordination, monitoring, benchmarking and execution of research in the field of Veteran suicide prevention.

    “We are committed to saving Veteran lives, but just as there is no single cause of suicide, no single organization can end Veteran suicide alone,” Wilkie said. “We must work side by side with our partners at all levels of government — and in the private sector — to provide our Veterans with the mental health and suicide prevention services they need. This executive order advances the public health approach to suicide prevention further by identifying key integrations and connections across the federal government and communities that can be used to save Veterans’ lives.”

    Learn more about VA’s suicide prevention resources and programs at www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention.

    Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, send a text message to 838255 or chat online at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

    Reporters covering this issue are strongly encouraged to visit www.reportingonsuicide.org for important guidance on how to communicate about suicide.

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  • Trump signs

     

    “Our mission is to mobilize every level of American society to save the lives of our great Veterans and support our Veterans in need,” the president said.

    Surrounded by Veterans service organizations, state and local Veteran leaders, and those who have lost a friend or family member to suicide – the president pledged his support.

    “To every Veteran I want you to know that you have an entire nation of more than 300 million people behind you. You will never ever be forgotten, we are with you all the way,” the president said.

    The executive order creates a new cabinet level task force co-chaired by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. The task force will create a comprehensive public health road map that brings together local government along with private sector to improve the quality of life for our Veterans and turn the tide on the Veteran suicide crisis.

    U.S. Navy Veteran Frank Larkin, who lost his son, U.S. Navy Veteran Ryan Larkin to suicide said “We need a holistic approach with a heightened sense of urgency to push scientific research.”

    “We hear these stories consistently – and it takes the entire community to be able to do this,” said U.S. Marine Corps Veteran Thomas Winkle, director of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families.

    The executive order calls for additional state and local community engagement to ensure resources are working together for collective impact.

    “It is about pulling together the resources of the federal government, our states and localities our charities non- government organizations and coming together with a road map and resources to make sure we no longer have those 19,” said Wilkie.

    VA’s Veterans Experience Office will support this executive order and supports the existing National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide by leveraging state-of-art best practices in customer service data, tools, technology and engagement.

    The 153 Community Veterans Engagement Boards across the country serve as community integrators for state and local resources, allowing VA to listen and support local initiatives. These boards are actively involved in the BeConnected campaign created by the Arizona Coalition for Military Families. These efforts also include the OMHSP/SAMHSA Governors Challenge.

    The White House / VA Hotline conducts warm-hand offs to the Veterans Crisis Line, and new contact relationship management software has been deployed to the crisis line to enhance response. The Veterans Signals survey allows Veterans to provide feedback, and is able to identify Veterans in crisis for direct crisis line assistance.

    Seventy percent of those who die by suicide have not received or sought care from the VA in the previous two year, and so increasing access and awareness of VA’s care, benefits, and services is also critical.

    Tools such as VA.gov, the VA Welcome Kit, and a unified knowledge management library across all VA contact centers and with state directors of departments of Veterans affairs increases access and referrals to VA services.

    Veterans Experience Action Centers are being hosted around the country to provide local one-stop destinations to provide all VA and local resources available, including direct claims assistance and healthcare enrollment.

    “I’ve said many times that the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs is to remind our fellow citizens why they sleep soundly at night. They sleep soundly at night because of the sacrifices of a select number of their fellow Americans,” Wilkie said.

    Source

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  • Preventing Vet Suicide

     

    Not sure where to start or what to do or say? Read on

    Year-round, VA empowers communities to take action to support our nation’s Veterans. Each community across the country plays a role in supporting Veterans, but as an individual you may not know what to do or where to start.

    You don’t need to have special training to support the Veterans in your life, and we can all do something to help a Veteran who is going through a difficult time. Even seemingly small actions can have a huge impact: preventing suicide begins with just the willingness to Be There.

    Showing your support can be as simple as sending a Veteran a text message — inviting someone over to catch up or sharing a positive thought are both great ways to communicate that you care.

    Your words could be exactly what a Veteran in crisis needs to hear and could be a reminder of the many people out there who are willing to listen.

    Here are some sample text messages:

    • “Hey Tom, haven’t seen you around in a while! We should grab coffee this week. How about tomorrow?”
    • “Just letting you know I’m here for you if you need anything. Call me anytime!”
    • “Hey Amy, hope all is well with you! Been thinking about you today. I miss you!”

    When you sense that a Veteran is not doing well, your words can help. You can make a difference by just starting a conversation. Although it can seem challenging, it is important to talk about difficult feelings and experiences.

    Keep in mind: asking questions about thoughts of suicide does not increase a person’s suicide risk. Instead, an open conversation can help someone feel less alone and let others into the Veteran’s experience — and feeling connected is shown to reduce suicide risk.

    Keep these best practices in mind when preparing for a conversation:

    • Show that you are really listening. Remember to maintain eye contact and turn in toward the Veteran while they are speaking.
    • Validate the Veteran’s experience. Even if you can’t relate to what a Veteran is experiencing, you can tell them you understand that they went through something difficult and show that you respect their feelings about it.
    • Let them decide how much information to share. Supportive and encouraging comments, rather than invasive personal questions, will create a space for open communication and avoid putting a Veteran on the defensive.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask the question. When you are concerned about suicide risk, it’s OK to ask people if they have ever thought about hurting themselves or take action to prepare for suicide. The answers can help you consider next steps to take.

    Simply reaching out to a Veteran in need and opening the door for a discussion could make all the difference.

    Learn more ways to show your support and Be There by visiting VeteransCrisisLine.net/BeThere to find more resources and information.

    Source

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  • VA Bay Pines Medical

     

    Despite three suicides in six days on Veterans Affairs campuses earlier this month, department officials are confident they have made progress in preventing such deaths.

    At least 24 suicides have occurred on VA campuses in the last 18 months, the most recent two weeks ago when a Veteran shot himself in front of a crowd in the lobby of a Texas VA outpatient clinic. That came less than a week after two other Veterans died by suicide at separate VA locations in Georgia.

    “We’re struggling to find any single trend with that group,” said Dr. Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevention at VA. “Compared to the overall (number of Veteran suicides), that number is small … But we’re very concerned about anything that happens on our campuses.”

    And the sudden spate of deaths doesn’t reflect recent progress at department hospitals, VA officials argue. In fact, outside health experts have lauded VA officials for their work on the issue in recent years.

    Last fall, the Joint Commission — an independent non-profit that tracks more than 21,000 health care organizations nationwide — noted the rate of suicide in VA medical centers sits below that of the private sector, and dropped more than 80 percent (to 0.74 per 100,000 admissions) following department focus on the problem.

    The figures “suggest that well-designed quality improvement initiatives can lead to a reduction in the occurrence of these tragic events,” researchers wrote.

    The contradiction of progress with suicide prevention at VA versus a rise in publicly visible deaths will get renewed focus next Monday, when members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hold a hearing on VA suicide prevention efforts.

    Already one lawmaker — Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., and an Afghanistan war Veteran — has introduced legislation pushing for more information on all suicide attempts at VA campuses, arguing that more information on the cases needs to be made public to stem the problem.

    Franklin acknowledged the higher-profile nature of those recent suicides does add to the urgency of finding solutions.

    In some cases, the suicides on VA campuses are in part a response to problems with VA care, although Franklin notes that such extreme actions are rarely spurred by a single reason. At least two Veterans who died left notes blaming VA for not providing enough health care.

    Other Veterans may have selected the sites to ensure their discovery, and because VA officials could inform their families in a professional, less abrupt manner. Franklin said researchers have not found a single explanation — or a single solution — to the issue.

    As a result, VA has not ordered any specific changes at facilities nationwide in response to the public suicides. Franklin said there has been a full review following each of the deaths — and 240 other suicide attempts on VA campuses that were prevented — to ensure appropriate patient outreach and response protocols are in place.

    VA already offers same-day mental health care for Veterans, and last fall implemented a new Safety Planning Intervention program as part of a broader suicide prevention effort. That includes a checklist for physicians and patients of possible triggers and warning signs, quick contacts for assistance, and environmental threats such as drugs or firearms.

    But department officials have rejected the idea of metal detectors at VA medical facilities, even after the Texas shooting, because “it would create a barrier to entry that might drive patients away.”

    Franklin said national officials have required local leaders to review their safety and security plans, and are holding frequent conference calls to share successes and challenges with regional leaders.

    And regional officials have taken their own steps to address the issue. In North Carolina, VA leadership has begun training parking lot attendants and front-line volunteers to identify signs of suicidal behavior and how to respond.

    The administration at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Florida — which has seen five suicides on its campuses since 2013 — has more than doubled its suicide prevention staff in the last nine months (from four to 10) and increased surveillance around campuses, to watch for similar warning signs.

    Earlier this year, President Donald Trump created a new task force on preventing Veterans suicide with a deadline of next spring to propose sweeping new approaches to the issue. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie is leading that effort, and the progress so far will be another talking point at Monday’s hearing.

    Franklin noted that of the 20 Veterans who died by suicide daily, about 14 have little or no contact with department programs or personnel. That puts extra urgency on community outreach.

    “We know this will take a national effort,” she said. “VA can’t do this alone.”

    Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

    Source

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  • Dr Shulkin 39

     

    In May of 1968 I was sent to Vietnam, where I translated intercepted communiques during the war. The horrors of war I witnessed changed me forever. Since I returned home, I have worked to end war and for social justice.

    In Vietnam, I, like millions of Vietnamese and many other American soldiers, was exposed to Agent Orange. Decades later, the VA linked that exposure to my diabetes.

    Right now there is a push to get Vets out of the VA system and into the private sector medical industry. But the private sector is not prepared to care for Vets. Private sector doctors do not understand the unique medical needs of Vets, including war trauma, battle induced hearing loss or toxin exposure such as Agent Orange.

    A recent RAND study of New York doctors showed only 16 percent asked about occupational or military exposures such as Agent Orange. The same report found just 20 percent of doctors even asked their patients if they had spent time in the military.

    While I may suffer from chronic diabetes because of Agent Orange, I am one of the luckier ones. Many people exposed to Agent Orange ended with Parkinson's disease, devastating cancers or they saw their children born with birth defects.

    This year, I returned to Vietnam where my heart was broken when we visited a hospital where children with serious birth defects linked to Agent Orange live out their lives. It also saddens me to say that currently children of male American Vets who were exposed to Agent Orange are exempt from receiving VA benefits.

    The VA knows just how common Agent Orange exposure is in Vets and has a comprehensive health care program designed specifically for those exposed to or sickened by Agent Orange.

    The VA is the largest integrated health care system in the U.S. It is a system designed by Vets and for Vets. The majority of those who work for the VA are Vets themselves. They understand the unique and complex needs of Vets.

    Importantly, a recent study found that pushing Veterans out of the VA may end up costing more taxpayer money and mean lower quality of care for Vets as the private sector system isn't prepared to meet the needs of more patients.

    In addition, most VA workers are protected by unions. As a retired postal worker and a longtime labor activist I know how important it is to have union workers be able to push for changes to make things safer and better. Union nurses at the VA have been able to do just that. They have fought for safe patient handling protections and nurses' involvement in safety inspections.

    Importantly, they have made sure that a nurse can report unsafe conditions without facing retaliation. If something is not right where I am getting health care, you know I want to be sure that someone - like a nurse - feels backed up and safe enough to say something.

    Right now the VA is under attack. President Trump kicked out the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin. Shulkin opposes efforts to push Vets out of the VA and into the private health care sector, a move he says will hurt Vets. In a piece published in the New York Times Shulkin wrote, "I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for Veterans."

    We must fight against this effort. Pushing Vets out of the VA means leaving them to the wolves of the private sector, where sickness is seen as a way to make money and Vets will no longer get care from those who understand their needs and how best to address their illnesses.

    I have worked hard since I came back from my deployment in Phu Bai, Vietnam to fight against the forces that seek to exploit people. I continue to stand up against the American war machine, and I stand up for my brothers and sisters in the labor movement, now I am standing up for myself and for all my fellow Veterans.

    I know, I am standing up for what is right, when I say we must save the VA.

    Source

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  • Suicide Awareness

     

    Hello, I’m Robert Wilkie, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    I’m blessed with the opportunity to serve our nation’s 20 million Veterans. Until recently, I was also honored to serve more than 1.4 million dedicated service members, and their families, at the Department of Defense.

    Service members and Veterans who have defended our freedom have earned our enduring gratitude. They should have the opportunity to live meaningful, productive lives, in the same freedom and peace that their service and sacrifices made possible for so many other Americans.

    Unfortunately, the cost of defending freedom can be tragically high. On average, 20 American Veterans die by suicide each day. Of those, 14 do not seek health care within our VA.

    VA is committed to delivering the highest quality care to Veterans, providing some with access to specialized innovative care, that may be unavailable in the private sector. And more and more, Veterans are receiving care through VA.

    Ultimately, whether Veterans choose VA, or get care or support from a peer, or a community agency, there is no wrong door when it comes to saving lives. Preventing Veterans suicide is a top priority for VA, the Department of Defense and this administration. Our goal is to prevent suicide among all Veterans, including those who may not receive care from us.

    This September, during Suicide Prevention Month, we’re spreading awareness about the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, and helping people start the conversation around mental health and support for Veterans in their communities. During Suicide Prevention Month, and all year round, we encourage everyone to be there from Veterans and service members.

    Starting the conversation may be challenging, but reaching out to a Veteran who’s facing a tough time can make all the difference, and it may even save a life.

    As part of VA suicide prevention strategy, we deliver targeted support to different populations based on their suicide risk. And we know that service members transitioning to Veteran status face a higher risk of suicide, especially during the first year after separation from the military.

    That’s why, this past January, President Trump signed an executive order that created a task force to align the mental health and suicide prevention efforts of VA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. We’re working together, across departments, to expand mental health programs and other resources for Veterans during that critical first year after departing from uniformed service.

    Even one Veteran, or service member lost to suicide is too many. VA is working hard to prevent that, through efforts like this critically important executive order, and others. But we can’t do it alone.

    Visit: BeThereForVeterans.com for resources to help you be there for Veterans and the service members in your life.

    Ending service member and Veteran suicide will not be easy, but we can make a positive difference, if we work together to be there, for all those who have served.

    Thank you,

    Robert Wilkie

    Source

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  • Spartan Pledge

     

    To fight the suicide epidemic, Veterans vow to serve and be there for one another

    It started with a conversation about Veteran suicide and what is causing the “22 a day” epidemic.

    It continued with a promise, which became the Spartan Pledge.

    The Spartan Pledge is a commitment among Veterans to not take their own lives but rather stand for their fellow soldiers in times of despair. It was created almost accidentally by an Iraq Veteran, Boone Cutler, when he spoke with another Veteran, his friend “Nacho,” about a mutual friend’s suicide.

    “I said to him, ‘Have you ever thought about it?’” Cutler remembered. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I think about it every day.’ And it blew me away. We’d never discussed that—and we were tight. We covered each other.”

    Off the cuff, Cutler and his buddy made a promise.

    “You really can’t think too far ahead when you’re in that state of mind, so I said, ‘Just call. Just call me first. Don’t punk out. Don’t go without saying goodbye,’” Cutler told his friend. “And then we made an agreement to at least call each other first.”

    Other Veterans helped that evolve into what Cutler started calling the Spartan Pledge, which he said around a thousand Veterans have made. It’s just two lines, meant to give Vets a pause before they hurt themselves:

    “I will not take my own life by my own hand until I talk to my battle buddy first. My mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family.”

    Veterans commit suicide at a 50-percent higher rate than those who did not serve in the military, according to a study published last year from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The 2015 DAV Veterans Pulse Survey found that 1 in 4 Veterans see suicide as one of the biggest challenges facing those who have served.

    “You don’t have to be suicidal to take the pledge,” said Steve “Luker” Danyluk, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who’s also taken up the cause. “It’s finding a mission: Help your buddy. It’s reconnecting, re-establishing those relationships that seem to vanish once you leave the military.”

    When Danyluk and retired New York City Fire Department firefighter Danny Prince started talking about 25 pounds of steel recovered from the World Trade Center and the aftermath of the tragedy on 9/11, their conversation became about how they could use that powerful symbolism to bring attention to the terrible epidemic of Veteran suicide as well.

    Prince, a Coast Guard Veteran, visited injured Veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last fall. With him, he carried the 25 pounds of scrap metal.

    “It’s remarkable, the pieces of steel that we have. They’re so important, and you don’t want to waste anything,” said Prince.

    Danyluk had an idea to turn the steel remnants into a symbol for Veterans and first responders everywhere that could potentially open up the conversation and save Veterans’ lives. What evolved was nothing short of powerful. They started moving on a plan to gather Veterans and first responders together and forge the steel into a “Spartan Sword.”

    “The pure, almost religious nature of the steel from the World Trade Center was transformed into something about healing,” said Danyluk.

    The 9/11 attacks motivated a lot of people to join the military, Danyluk said, so the symbolism of the sword is important. “It’s about transformation—taking this twisted steel that was part of our nation’s greatest tragedy and turning it into something beautiful: a weapon of healing rather than a weapon of destruction.”

    Danyluk helped organize the Spartan Alliance, a collaboration of nonprofit Veteran organizations, and joined forces with Prince to create Spartan Weekend.

    DAV got on board early, realizing the impact such an event could have for our nation’s ill and injured Veterans.

    “DAV proactively fights this epidemic by providing services that connect Veterans with care and address their quality of life, but this was a chance for us to become involved in a way where we could directly see an impact,” said DAV National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “It was a new idea—nothing like this had been done before—so we knew we were in for something truly special.”

    Hundreds of Veterans, their families and caregivers attended the Spartan Weekend, held in Washington, D. C., in May. They gathered to raise awareness about Veteran suicide, a struggle many of them have faced head on.

    “I know too many people who have chosen suicide over life, including my own supervisor,” Air Force Veteran Sarah Bonner said. “That’s why I came. I will do anything—absolutely anything—to make sure other Veterans don’t choose that option. This weekend reminds us that we are not alone. We have our Veteran family. I could’ve been one of the 22, but I wasn’t because of support. So now I’m here to show other Veterans I support them.”

    The weekend included a bike ride, a concert at the Hard Rock Cafe headlined by Kristy Lee Cook and other events designed to bond participating Veterans and family members. It culminated on Mother’s Day with a nondenominational service at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial.

    The Rev. Matt Pawlikowski, an Army chaplain from West Point, officiated a Mother’s Day service honoring Gold Star and Blue Star Mothers who have sons or daughters who are actively serving or have lost their lives in service.

    Margie Miller, from New York, came to the event eight months and seven days after her son, a 22-yearold Marine, fatally shot himself. She talked about how they spoke on the phone most days and how she had just heard all about his plans, seemingly happy as ever, to go boating with friends. Two days later, her husband told her, “There are three Marines in the living room.”

    “You took a solemn pledge to protect our country,” Miller told the audience of Veterans. “Take that same pledge, the Spartan Pledge, and protect yourself. Say, ‘I will reach out for help.’”

    The ceremony closed with dozens of Veterans taking an oath against suicide.

    Leading the pledge was Miller and DAV Past National Commander and Marine Vietnam Veteran Roberto “Bobby” Barrera.

    “Come over here,” Barrera said while reaching out to the sword with his prosthetic arm. “Gather around the sword with me; touch it. If you can’t touch the sword, grab ahold of someone who is touching it, so we can form an unbreakable connection. You are not alone. We are here. Your family, your Veteran family.”

    Everyone in attendance gathered around the sword and each other in an emotionally charged circle while they repeated the pledge.

    The evening before the pledge at the memorial, Barrera shared his personal story and told his fellow Veterans that, even recently, he himself had contemplated suicide after moving and experiencing a setback to his physical health. The fight against the epidemic is something that requires constant vigilance, he said. Nearly a half-century after being severely burned in combat, and after years of counseling and mentoring others, he was only recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    “I realized I needed help. I thought about what it would mean to my family and my fellow Veterans if I had made that choice. I thought of all the people who had supported me, and that’s what got me through a very dark period,” said Barrera. “It’s not just recent-era Veterans who contribute to these statistics. To solve this problem, we need to make a commitment as a community to be there for one another.”

    The event also featured DAV Past National Commander Dennis Joyner, a Vietnam Veteran and triple amputee, who is the president of Disabled Veterans’ Life Memorial Foundation. “When the last bullet is fired, when the last man or woman steps off the plane or ship and comes home, for disabled Veterans, their struggles— those that are visible and the ones we can’t see—remain an everyday part of life,” said Joyner. “We as a community of Veterans and survivors must band together and ensure none of our own are left behind or forgotten.”

    Source

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  • Suicidal Vet Arrested

     

    A suicidal Veteran was arrested recently for threatening statements he made during a call with a Veterans Crisis Line operator.

    Veteran Mark W. Sweeny appeared in US District Court in Syracuse, New York, after his arrest for threatening to murder VA employees at the Syracuse Veterans Affairs Hospital.

    Court documents allege Sweeny, 60 years old, called the Veterans Crisis Line. During the call, Sweeny allegedly made numerous threatening statements toward VA employees at the hospital. He also said he intended to murder multiple individuals and said he had the means to do so.

    Sweeny faces a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, and supervised release for up to 3 years. The VA police department is investigating the allegations against Sweeny.

    Veterans Crisis Line

    The emergency call center system has been around for years fielding calls all day every day. The agency boasts about the number of times it has sent “rescuers” to assist callers in need:

    The Crisis Line has sent over 45,000 rescues to assist callers with emergency services. That means that when our trained responders know the caller is in a serious crisis and they can’t calm them down or convince them to go to a VA hospital and see a Suicide Prevention Coordinator, they call the closest local emergency personnel to go to that Veteran’s home and help them.

    How many of those rescuers were Swat Team members or police?

    The Veterans Crisis Line gets a lot of positive press from news media favorably aligned with the agency. And why shouldn’t it? The system has sent trained responders, whatever that means, to the homes of Veterans for “rescues” 45,000 times.

    But that is not the full story.

    Many Veterans complain about those types of responders who come to their home that sometimes include members of the local Swat Team or the sheriff.

    Veterans In Crisis

    Sweeny is not the only Veteran threatening murder.

    About a month ago, one Veteran opened fire at the West Palm Beach VA and shot an emergency room doctor before being restrained. Another Veteran at the same facility hung himself after psych ward personnel refused to release him back to his family.

    If the agency is not careful about how it proceeds when Veterans react in acute distress, it risks losing credibility with the same Veterans it is supposed to serve.

    Presently, the agency spends millions to advertise and counter negative stories but spending taxpayer dollars to counter true stories of how Veterans are being treated when they call in desperation.

    Do Not Threaten, Folks

    I want to conclude by at least letting you know I do not condone threatening murder against VA employees. I also wish we could come up with a more flexible way to assess a Veteran in acute distress.

    Sweeny no doubt was suffering from suicidal ideations when he called VA for help and went off the rails. Does it make sense to throw the book at a guy who was likely not in his right mind?

    Source

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  • Suicide Prevention 005

     

    OKINAWA, Japan — Behavioral health specialists report depression and suicide ideation rates increase during the holiday season and into the post-holiday period in the Marine Corps, according to the Headquarters Marine Corps Force Preservation Directorate.

    Marines may feel lonelier during these times as a result of being away from their families and supporters, said Shannon Hutchinson, the 3rd Marine Division behavioral health specialist. Marines then question their belonging and wonder if people would care if they weren’t around.

    One of the 14 Marine Corps leadership principles states, “know your Marines and look out for their welfare.” Hutchinson said leaders should make it a regular practice to talk about taking care of yourselves and each other when it comes to managing stress and everyday issues. She also advised that regular counseling sessions should include discussions about issues other than work, like family, finance and mental health. In order to be “ready to fight tonight” and achieve the Marine Corps mission, Marines must be mentally and spiritually ready, said Hutchinson.

    “The truth is it’s your responsibility and part of the commitment you made to the Marine Corps to be ready to handle whatever the Marine Corps needs of you at any time,” said Hutchinson. “We perform corrective and preventative maintenance on equipment so why wouldn’t we do that for ourselves and our fellow Marines?”

    As military members, we’re required to attend suicide prevention training to recognize the signs amongst peers and lead them to the appropriate resources, but even then it’s difficult to know if someone is actually contemplating suicide unless we truly know that person.

    According to Navy Cmdr. Salee Oboza, the operational stress control and readiness training clinical provider, the best way to recognize the signs is to get to know your peers and care about their well-being.

    “People don't hesitate to help when someone is limping, but people tend to hesitate and turn the other way when someone is having a difficult time with their emotions,” said Oboza. “Emotional pain is the same as physical pain, it needs treatment for it to be better.”

    To defeat the stigma surrounding utilizing mental health resources, Oboza advises Marines to take every suicidal comment seriously and never make fun of the topic. She also encourages commands to invite the providers into work spaces to introduce themselves and their capabilities. Some resources found on base are the Behavioral Health Community Counseling Program and Family Advocacy Program, military and family life counselors, the Families Overcoming Under Stress team, the operational stress control and readiness team, the U.S. Naval Hospital mental health department, the substance abuse control officer and the command chaplain.

    “Asking for help will not make you appear weak and/or less of a Marine,” said Hutchinson. “You have a role in enhancing overall readiness. Protect yourself and others against behavioral health issues and take action to prevent incidents.”

    Source

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  • Spartan Pledge 002

     

    Taking the 'Spartan Pledge' Against Suicide

    To fight epidemic, Veterans vow to serve and be there for one another

    It started with a conversation about Veteran suicide and what is causing the "22 a day" epidemic.

    It continued with a promise, which became the Spartan Pledge.

    The Spartan Pledge is a commitment among Veterans to not take their own lives but rather stand for their fellow soldiers in times of despair. It was created almost accidentally by an Iraq Veteran, Boone Cutler, when he spoke with another Veteran, his friend "Nacho," about a mutual friend's suicide.

    "I said to him, ‘Have you ever thought about it?'" Cutler said during an interview with NPR reporter Quil Lawrence. "And he said, ‘Yeah, I think about it every day.' And it blew me away. We'd never discussed that -- and we were tight. We covered each other."

    Off the cuff, Cutler and his buddy made a promise.

    "You really can't think too far ahead when you're in that state of mind, so I said, ‘Just call. Just call me first. Don't punk out. Don't go without saying goodbye,'" Cutler told his friend. "And then we made an agreement to at least call each other first."

    Other Veterans helped that evolve into what Cutler started calling the Spartan Pledge, which he said around a thousand Veterans have made. It's just two lines, meant to give Vets a pause before they hurt themselves:

    "I will not take my own life by my own hand until I talk to my battle buddy first. My mission is to find a mission to help my warfighter family."

    Veterans commit suicide at a 50-percent higher rate than those who did not serve in the military, according to a study published last year from the Department of Veterans Affairs. A Veterans Pulse Survey released by the charity DAV (Disabled American Veterans) last Veterans Day found that 1 in 4 Veterans see suicide as one of the biggest challenges facing those who have served.

    "You don't have to be suicidal to take the pledge," said Steve "Luker" Danyluk, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who's also taken up the cause. "It's finding a mission: Help your buddy. It's reconnecting, re-establishing those relationships that seem to vanish once you leave the military."

    When Danyluk and retired New York City Fire Department firefighter Danny Prince started talking about 25 pounds of steel recovered from the World Trade Center and the aftermath of the tragedy on 9/11, their conversation became about how they could use that powerful symbolism to bring attention to the terrible epidemic of Veteran suicide as well.

    Prince, a Coast Guard Veteran, visited injured Veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last fall. With him, he carried the 25 pounds of scrap metal.

    "It's remarkable, the pieces of steel that we have. They're so important, and you don't want to waste anything," Prince said in an interview with NPR reporter Quil Lawrence.

    Danyluk had an idea to turn the steel remnants into a symbol for Veterans and first responders everywhere that could potentially open up the conversation and save Veterans' lives. What evolved was nothing short of powerful. They started moving on a plan to gather Veterans and first responders together and forge the steel into a "Spartan Sword."

    "The pure, almost religious nature of the steel from the World Trade Center was transformed into something about healing," said Danyluk.

    The 9/11 attacks motivated a lot of people to join the military, Danyluk said, so the symbolism of the sword is important. "It's about transformation -- taking this twisted steel that was part of our nation's greatest tragedy and turning it into something beautiful: a weapon of healing rather than a weapon of destruction." Danyluk helped organize the Spartan Alliance, a collaboration of nonprofit Veteran organizations, and joined forces with Prince to create Spartan Weekend. The charity DAV got on board early, realizing the impact such an event could have for our nation's ill and injured Veterans.

    "DAV proactively fights this epidemic by providing services that connect Veterans with care and address their quality of life, but this was a chance for us to become involved in a way where we could directly see an impact," said DAV National Adjutant Marc Burgess. "It was a new idea -- nothing like this had been done before -- so we knew we were in for something truly special."

    Hundreds of Veterans, their families and caregivers attended the Spartan Weekend, held in Washington, D. C., in May. They gathered to raise awareness about Veteran suicide, a struggle many of them have faced head on.

    "I know too many people who have chosen suicide over life, including my own supervisor," Air Force Veteran Sarah Bonner said. "That's why I came. I will do anything -- absolutely anything -- to make sure other Veterans don't choose that option. This weekend reminds us that we are not alone. We have our Veteran family. I could've been one of the 22, but I wasn't because of support. So now I'm here to show other Veterans I support them."

    The weekend included a bike ride, a concert at the Hard Rock Cafe headlined by Kristy Lee Cook and other events designed to bond participating Veterans and family members. It culminated on Mother's Day with a nondenominational service at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial.

    The Rev. Matt Pawlikowski, an Army chaplain from West Point, officiated a Mother's Day service honoring Gold Star and Blue Star Mothers who have sons or daughters who are actively serving or have lost their lives in service.

    Margie Miller, from New York, came to the event eight months and seven days after her son, a 22-year-old Marine, fatally shot himself. She talked about how they spoke on the phone most days and how she had just heard all about his plans, seemingly happy as ever, to go boating with friends. Two days later, her husband told her, "There are three Marines in the living room."

    "You took a solemn pledge to protect our country," Miller told the audience of Veterans. "Take that same pledge, the Spartan Pledge, and protect yourself. Say, ‘I will reach out for help.'"

    The ceremony closed with dozens of Veterans taking an oath against suicide.

    Leading the pledge was Miller and DAV Past National Commander and Marine Vietnam Veteran Roberto "Bobby" Barrera.

    "Come over here," Barrera said while reaching out to the sword with his prosthetic arm. "Gather around the sword with me; touch it. If you can't touch the sword, grab ahold of someone who is touching it, so we can form an unbreakable connection. You are not alone. We are here. Your family, your Veteran family." Everyone in attendance gathered around the sword and each other in an emotionally charged circle while they repeated the pledge.

    The evening before the pledge at the memorial, Barrera shared his personal story and told his fellow Veterans that, even recently, he himself had contemplated suicide after moving and experiencing a setback to his physical health. The fight against the epidemic is something that requires constant vigilance, he said. Nearly a half-century after being severely burned in combat, and after years of counseling and mentoring others, he was only recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    "I realized I needed help. I thought about what it would mean to my family and my fellow Veterans if I had made that choice. I thought of all the people who had supported me, and that's what got me through a very dark period," said Barrera. "It's not just recent-era Veterans who contribute to these statistics. To solve this problem, we need to make a commitment as a community to be there for one another."

    The event also featured DAV Past National Commander Dennis Joyner, a Vietnam Veteran and triple amputee, who is the president of Disabled Veterans' Life Memorial Foundation. "When the last bullet is fired, when the last man or woman steps off the plane or ship and comes home, for disabled Veterans, their struggles -- those that are visible and the ones we can't see -- remain an everyday part of life," said Joyner. "We as a community of Veterans and survivors must band together and ensure none of our own are left behind or forgotten."

    The Spartan Pledge has caught fire in the Veteran community and continues to be a binding promise among suffering Veterans. While there can be no study of how effective the Pledge is, many say just having that "battle buddy" aware of what's going on inside can be the difference between suicide and life.

    Cutler and a charity called The Gallant Few have made this mission to combat Veteran suicide with his creation of The Spartan Pledge. Warfighters promise not to take their own lives, and instead vow to find a new mission to help one another.

    The newest data from the Department of Veterans Affairs states that 20 Veterans commit suicide every single day. Don't be one of the 20. Contact the Veterans Crisis Line – 1-800-273-8255 – or any medical professional if you're having thoughts of suicide.

    Source

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  • Suicides One Case

     

    Two life savers proud to know they do make a difference

    Lynn Worley (L) and Carrie Musselwhite (R) are Suicide Prevention Coordinators for the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System (GCVHCS). Worley is stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Musselwhite works at the Joint Ambulatory Care Center in Pensacola, Florida.

    Serving on the front line of VA’s number one clinical priority requires a special brand of dedication to a demanding task.

    And both ladies have it.

    Worley: “My job is to help those who have served and get them the access to whatever care they need.”

    Musselwhite: “My dream job of helping Veterans is a very humbling experience.”

    They monitor the services for Veterans designated as “high risk for suicide” and are transitional coordinators of care for these patients.

    They perform expert crisis consultation, assessment, intervention, safety planning, and outreach for Veterans.

    Worley has 30 years of mental health social worker experience and joined VA four years ago as the Suicide Prevention Coordinator.

    “My father, who died in 2014, was an Army Veteran. I have aunts, uncles and cousins who are Veterans. It’s in my nature to give back and help those who have served.”

    Worley and Musselwhite also manage and respond to referrals from the National Veterans Crisis Line.

    They assist VA health care providers with treatment plans for patients to ensure that care is coordinated, collaborative, and integrated within the medical center.

    Musselwhite also talks about her family when discussing her motivation. “My father was in the Army-Air Corps and I have many relatives who are Veterans. I get a great sense of satisfaction from helping to save lives.

    “The attack on 9/11 happened while I was a senior in high school. A lot of my friends with scholarships to college had everything going for them but decided to serve their country.

    “And many of them didn’t come back the same. Because I didn’t serve, I wanted to be able to help in a different way.”

    While all their cases are critical and important, some require an extra amount of attention and coordination.

    Lots of staff and a huge effort

    Just one case study of the efforts taken by VA to help Veterans in crisis involved a young combat Veteran with numerous issues.

    Worley: “After his tour of combat duty, he had PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and significant addiction problems which started before he joined the Army. This complicated everything and brings the whole team into action.

    “He was in and out of the acute psychiatric unit and just when we thought he was stabilized and ready to be outside, he had a relapse and had to be readmitted.

    “This is an example of an intense effort by our case management program. It took lots of staff and required a huge effort all the way around.

    “We knew he needed a longer-term VA residential programs and his case manager flew with him to make sure he got there.”

    With a smile of relief and fighting a tear, Worley added that she has high hopes for him that this was going to be the turning point.

    Musselwhite remembers one episode while she was training at a local hospital. She visited with a Veteran patient who had never been registered with VA. “He had three combat tours and was only 24. And he didn’t think he was a Veteran. He thought you had to be career or retired. I was glad we got him enrolled…and got him going.”

    A regular assignment for the two ladies is training clinical and non-clinical staff on Suicide Prevention with information on risk factors, warning signs and treatment options.

    They also manage and respond to referrals from the National Veterans Crisis Line.

    When necessary, they assist with crisis management of new and existing patients.

    And they explain the importance of VA’s suicide prevention programs with presentations to community social service agencies, military Guard and Reserve units, and Veteran Service Organizations.

    What’s it like having a job like this?

    Musselwhite smiles and adds, “Well, when you tell people your job, their usual reaction is, ‘Oh my goodness, how do you do that? Are you really going to make a difference? Oh, I could never do that.’

    “I just remind them that you or I could be that person on the side of the road or that person struggling. To help save someone’s life and then be able to tell a family member, their children or their spouse, that their loved one is safe – that’s how I can do this.”

    Worley agrees: “That’s the reaction I get. ‘Well thank you for what you do. Thank goodness we have you because we need you. There are Veterans out there who need help.’

    “That’s reaffirming. We know – individually – that we do make a difference.

    “What gives me a sense of satisfaction is just being there for someone and having that therapeutic relationship. That in and of itself makes a difference.

    “Things don’t just get better overnight. A lot of the work we do is planting seeds. The other side of the rainbow is a little ways off sometimes.”

    Source

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  • Prevent Vet Suicides

     

    WASHINGTON — The White House is creating a new high-level task force on preventing Veterans suicide which will include new community outreach grants aimed at former service members and expanded projects across a host of government agencies to coordinate research and prevention efforts.

    President Donald Trump will sign a new executive order on the initiative — dubbed the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or PREVENTS — on Tuesday afternoon at the White House.

    It’s the latest in a series of steps by his administration to address the problem, which claims an estimated 20 Veterans lives every day. Last year, the president signed a separate executive order providing more counseling and mental health care for recently separated service members, who face a significantly higher risk of suicide than other military groups.

    According to senior administration officials, the new order will give agency officials a year to develop plans for a more aggressive approach to suicide prevention, with a goal of more state and local community engagement.

    The task force will look to develop a new grant system for mental health support and outreach similar to the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program, which provides funding directly to local charities and city programs to help individualize assistance plans for Veterans.

    Those HUD-VASH vouchers have been in use for a decade and are widely credited with helping draw down the number of homeless Veterans by half. Officials hope to replicate that model for suicide prevention, relying on local expertise and federal funding to reach more Veterans.

    Veterans Affairs officials estimate that of the 20 Veterans a day who take their own lives, about 70 percent have little or no contact with the federal Veteran system. That makes targeted community outreach to populations outside those systems critical to addressing the suicide problem.

    The White House has not put a price tag on the new grants yet, but is expected to work with Congress in coming months to set parameters and draft legislation on the idea.

    Meanwhile, the new task force will be charged with better coordinating existing research on suicide within federal systems. Already, the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security have a host of information on traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues that could be indicators of suicidal thoughts.

    Officials hope to use the Department of Energy’s expansive data collection and research systems to better analyze that existing data, providing new potential avenues for prevention efforts.

    The research work will also include pushing the Centers for Disease Control to provide more up-to-date information on Veterans suicide research. Currently, the latest available data on the problem typically trails at least two years behind current efforts. Senior administration officials are hoping to cut that wait down to no more than six months.

    Suicide prevention has been a major focus of both Congress and the executive branch in recent years, but the rate of suicide has largely remained flat. White House officials are hoping the new task force will restart a national conversation on the issue, and bring in private-sector partners to help find new solutions.

    Officials from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee are scheduled to hold a roundtable with administration experts on the issue later this week. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced new legislation on the issue last week.

    In December, the Veterans Health Administration announced a new pilot program with the advocacy group The Independence Fund to reunite combat troops for group therapy sessions, in the hopes of using those common bonds to provide better mental health resources.

    Sarah Verardo, chief executive officer of the group, called the new White House initiative an important step forward in helping Veterans.

    “We owe it to them to ensure they are not forgotten upon their return home,” she said. “They may have returned from the battlefield, but their war is not over. For many, their true battle begins when their purpose in the military ends.”

    Veterans facing any type of mental or emotional distress can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at any time by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and selecting option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

    Source

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  • Vets Suicides

     

    Congress returns from its spring break to a flurry of defense and Veterans hearings, including a rare Monday evening event focused on preventing Veterans suicide.

    The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing comes amid concerns over a series of suicides on VA medical facility campuses earlier this month, and will feature tough questions for department officials from both sides of the political aisle.

    Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will appear before Congress again, this time to defend the White House’s fiscal 2020 budget request to the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday morning.

    The Senate Armed Services Committee will consider nominations for the new Chief of Naval Operations, Marine Corps Commandant and Army Chief of Staff over a series of hearings this week.

    Monday, April 29

    House Veterans' Affairs — 7 p.m. — 1334 Longworth

    Suicide prevention

    VA and outside experts will testify on department suicide prevention efforts.

    Tuesday, April 30

    House Appropriations — 9 a.m. — 2359 Rayburn

    Homeland Security budget

    Homeland Security officials will testify on the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    Senate Armed Services — 9:30 a.m. — G-50 Dirksen

    Nominations

    The committee will consider the nominations of Adm. William Moran to be Chief of Naval Operations and Lt. Gen. David Berger to be Commandant of the Marine Corps.

    House Veterans' Affairs — 10 a.m. — 2253 Rayburn

    Pending legislation

    The subcommittee on health will consider several pending bills.

    House Foreign Affairs — 10 a.m. — 2172 Rayburn

    Kosovo wartime victims

    Atifete Jahjaga, former president of the Republic of Kosovo, will testify on war crimes in the Kosovo conflict.

    House Appropriations — 11 a.m. — H-140 Capitol

    Navy/Marine Corps Budget

    Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller will testify on the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    House Foreign Affairs — 1:30 p.m. — 2172 Rayburn

    Global terrorism

    Outside experts will testify on worldwide extremist threats.

    House Veterans' Affairs — 2 p.m. — 2253 Rayburn

    VA budget

    Department officials will testify before the economic opportunity subcommittee on Veterans benefits and budgeting issues.

    House Armed Services — 2 p.m. — 2118 Rayburn

    Military medical malpractice

    Victims of military malpractice incidents and outside experts will testify on potential legal changes regarding the Feres doctrine.

    House Foreign Affairs — 2 p.m. — 2200 Rayburn

    UN peacekeeping

    Outside experts will testify on United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa.

    Senate Appropriations — 2:30 p.m. — 124 Dirksen

    VA budget

    Department officials will testify on the fiscal 2020 budget request for VA.

    Wednesday, May 1

    House Appropriations — 10 a.m. — 2359 Rayburn

    Defense budget

    Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. will testify on the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    House Armed Services — 10 a.m. — 2118 Rayburn

    North/South America

    Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, and Gen. Terrance O’Shaughnessy, head of U.S. Northern Command, will testify on the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    House Foreign Affairs — 10 a.m. — 2172 Rayburn

    Russia

    Outside experts will testify on Russian aggression and U.S. national security responses.

    Senate Appropriations — 10 a.m. — 192 Dirksen

    Navy/Marine Corps Budget

    Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller will testify on the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    Senate Foreign Relations — 10:15 a.m. — 419 Dirksen

    Syria

    Actor Ben Stiller and outside experts will testify on the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

    House Veterans' Affairs — 2 p.m. — 1334 Longworth

    Pending legislation

    The subcommittee on disability assistance will consider several pending bills.

    House Armed Services — 2 p.m. — 2118 Rayburn

    Army modernization

    Service officials will testify on future modernization plans and the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    House Armed Services — 2:30 p.m. — 2212 Rayburn

    Military construction programs

    Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon will testify before the committee on the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    Senate Armed Services — 2:30 p.m. — 222 Russell

    Nuclear weapons

    Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Ellen Lord and other defense officials will testify on U.S. nuclear weapons policy and the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    Senate Appropriations — 2:30 p.m. — 192 Dirksen

    NASA budget

    NASA officials will testify before the committee on the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    Thursday, May 2

    House Armed Services — 9 a.m. — 2118 Rayburn

    Air Force modernization

    Service officials will testify on Air Force modernization plans and the fiscal 2020 budget request.

    Senate Armed Services — 9:30 a.m. — G-50 Dirksen

    Nominations

    The committee will review the nomination of Gen. James McConville to become Chief of Staff of the Army.

    House Veterans' Affairs — 10 a.m. — 1300 Longworth

    Women Veterans

    VA officials and outside advocates will testify on barriers to women’s health care access at the department.

    Source

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  • Die by Suicide

     

    WASHINGTON — Three suicides occurred during a five-day period on Department of Veterans Affairs properties, prompting reaction this week from Capitol Hill.

    Two Veterans died by suicide in Georgia, one April 5 at a parking garage at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin and the other April 6 outside the main entrance to the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

    On Tuesday, a Veteran shot himself in the waiting room at a VA clinic in Austin, Texas, according to KWCX-TV.

    “Those deaths did not go by me without noticing them, nor has it gone by me that we have a job to do,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Wednesday during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing.

    Though it wasn’t the intended subject of the hearing, multiple senators asked VA officials on Wednesday about the recent suicides.

    Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said there have been more than 260 suicide attempts on VA property, 240 of which were interrupted and prevented. He didn’t specify a time period for the attempts.

    According to a Washington Post report, 19 suicides occurred on VA property between October 2017 and November 2018.

    “Every one of these is a gut-wrenching experience for our 24,000 mental health providers and all of us that work for VA,” Stone said.

    In response to reports of the three suicides, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he would schedule a hearing on the issue later this month.

    “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,” Takano said in a statement. “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.”

    According to the latest VA data, 20 Veterans die by suicide every day. Of those deaths, 14 are not receiving VA health care.

    Suicide among Veterans continues to be higher than the rest of the population, and younger Veterans are particularly at risk. VA data released in September showed the rate of suicide among Veterans ages 18 to 34 had significantly increased.

    The VA hasn’t identified the Veterans who died by suicide in Georgia, nor described the circumstances of the deaths. In Austin, a still-unidentified Veteran shot himself in front of hundreds of people in the waiting room, KWTX reported. Weapons are prohibited in VA clinics, but the Austin facility didn’t have metal detectors.

    Stone told senators Wednesday that Veteran suicide was a societal problem that needed a nationwide approach. He noted an executive order that President Donald Trump signed in March creating a Cabinet-level task force that he promised would “mobilize every level of American society” to address Veteran suicide. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was selected to lead it.

    “I wish it was as simple as me saying I could do more patrols in a parking lot that would stop this epidemic,” Stone said. “Where we as a community and society have failed that Veteran is a very complex answer.”

    Source

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  • Vet Suicide Prevention

     

    Richard Stone, the Department of Veterans Affairs executive in charge, poked a hole in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's claim the agency is not fully funded.

    Stone was asked Monday during a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing on the trend of Veterans committing suicide and, specifically, addressing the recent number of Veterans committing suicide on VA property.

    "I think having sat through the last couple hours here with me, you understand, well understand very well my answer. This is not a financial problem," said Stone. "This is a problem of the society that we live in. And this is about the interpersonal connections that we each have, to each other as a society.

    "I can hire another 20,000 mental health providers and what I can say to you is that people in crisis will get great care. And they will come in or be seen in the same day as they are today," Stone said. "I can hire additional people for at risk, but this is about moving to the left, moving towards the fact that we need to reduce risk. And it goes back to your colleagues’ comments earlier about whole health and identifying what connects us as humans, to other humans, and finding stabilization, as a society, that is much different than it was for those Veterans that came home 30, 40, and 50 years ago."

    During the hearing, the VA officials noted how of the more than 20 Veterans who commit suicide every day, only a fraction of them are receiving care through the VA, with a majority never accessing the resources available to them.

    The hearing took place hours after a Veteran committed suicide at the Cleveland VA Medical Center, according to Fox 8.

    After the hearing, Stone told the Washington Examiner the issue of Veteran suicide is a multifaceted one that money alone cannot solve.

    "Ten years ago we had a $4 billion budget for mental health, today I have an $8.9 billion budget for mental health," he said. "I've doubled the number of mental health providers over these years, but yet we haven't changed the suicide rate. What I'm saying this is not just about adding more personnel. Certainly we can always add more personnel and we can go move from one to two day wait time for mental health."

    When asked by another reporter what the VA needs from Congress right now, instead of saying money, Stone said the bureaucracy needs be clearer and faster on certain issues.

    "No. 1, we need clarity on the never-activated guardsmen and reservists: Are they Veterans or aren't they Veterans? Should they be allowed to come in?" he said. "Our option is, we're here. We have an established system. These are people who had served in uniform. The fact they just weren't activated shouldn't keep them from coming in."

    Stone said it takes too long to build new intake centers, as approval can take four to seven years before construction begins: "We need to be much more agile in that."

    Stone's comments are in stark contrast to New York Democrat Ocasio-Cortez's insistence that the VA is not fully funded, at least when it comes to preventing Veteran suicide.

    The VA's budget is more than $200 billion. The department has requested a total of $220.2 billion for fiscal 2020, a 9.6% increase from the previous fiscal year.

    Source

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  • Vet Suicide At Cleveland

     

    A Veteran tragically took his own life yesterday at the Cleveland VA Medical Center just outside the facility’s emergency department.

    “Our deepest condolences go out to the loved ones affected by this death,” the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System said in a statement. “Suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority. One life lost to suicide is one too many.”

    The facility cited privacy concerns when asked to provide additional details about the suicide. The immediate response is not unlike that of other facilities where Veterans committed suicide on agency property including two suicides in Atlanta and the third in Texas.

    Gary Pressley, 29, shot himself in a parking lot with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Olen Hancock, 68, shot himself and died the following day. A third Veteran shot himself in a VA waiting room located in Austin, TX.

    “Every one of these is a gut-wrenching experience for our 24,000 mental health providers and all of us that work for VA,” Richard Stone, MD, of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) said at the time. Dr. Stone is the Executive in Charge for VHA.

    Congresswoman Speaks OnOhio Suicide

    “I am heartbroken following the suicide of a Veteran outside the Cleveland VA this morning,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH). “The level of pain that brings someone to suicide is fortunately unimaginable to many of us. My sincere condolences and prayers are with the Veteran’s family and friends during this immensely difficult time.”

    “The fact that 20 Veterans a day take their own life – over 7,000 a year – is a tragedy. With seven incidents of Veteran suicide on VA property in 2019 alone, 25 in the last 18 months, it’s critical we do more to stop this sustained national crisis. That is why I am working closely with my colleagues in the House and Senate to take decisive action to investigate and bring to an end the epidemic of Veteran suicide.”

    Veteran Suicide Data

    Over 6,000 Veterans have committed suicide since 2016. After the recent suicides, VA reiterated that suicide prevention is VA’s top clinical priority.

    “The sad thing that we confront every day is that of the 20 Veteran suicides that occur across the country 14 of those Veterans are outside of our department,” Wilkie said.

    “What I’ve envisioned is the opening of the aperture to the states and localities to get them resources to find those Veterans. One of the tragedies is that many of those Veterans who take their lives come from my father’s era – Vietnam. So we have Americans whose problems in many cases began building when Lyndon Johnson was president. We have to tackle this issue in a way that we haven’t tackled it before.”

    Is It A ‘Sad Thing’ To Be Outside VA?

    One theme that keeps coming up is the VA’s argument that 2/3 of Veteran suicides are by Veterans not receiving health care from VA. Somehow, the argument goes, VA will reduce Veteran suicides by pushing all Veterans into the VA system.

    Here’s the thing.

    Most Veterans do not receive health care from VA, around 2/3. So, it makes sense that around 2/3 of the Veterans committing suicide are outside the VA system.

    Is that fact alone a bad thing?

    On its face, the numbers seem to suggest a Veteran is at least as likely to commit suicide who uses VA health care services as a Veteran who does not use those same services.

    So, is pushing all Veterans into the VA for health care the answer to Veteran suicide?

    It seems unlikely.

    About VANortheast Ohio Healthcare System

    The Cleveland VA Medical Center serves over 110,000 Veterans. It is part of the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System, which is part of VISN 10 that serves 685,000 Veterans throughout Michigan, Ohio, Northern Kentucky, and Indiana.

    If you are reading this and experiencing mental health struggles, you are invited to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.

    However, please note that some Veterans who call the hotline report that they receive visits from police shortly after calls.

    Source

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  • Vet Suicide 001

     

    WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday amping up efforts to prevent Veteran suicide.

    Veterans are 1.5 times more likely than non-Veterans to take their lives, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and 20 die by suicide on average each day.

    The order creates a Cabinet-level task force led by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie that will coordinate and align efforts across the federal government to help stem the crisis among former service members.

    The panel will be tasked with creating a national plan to more effectively lower the numbers of Veteran suicides after numerous programs and billions of dollars allocated to address the problem in recent years have had minimal impact.

    "Veteran suicide is a tragedy of staggering proportions," Trump said at a signing ceremony. "Today, we can help end this crisis."

    The initiative is dubbed the "President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide" – or the PREVENTS Initiative.

    The plan will include prioritizing related research, encouraging collaboration with the private sector and developing a proposal to offer grants to state and local governments to support efforts to prevent Veteran suicide.

    "We're going to take care of our Veterans – we're working so hard on this. We're going to take care of them like never before," Trump said, calling them "our single greatest national treasure."

    "They kept us safe, and we're going to keep them safe," he said.

    The order follows a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in November that found VA suicide-prevention outreach “dropped off” since Trump took office. That included fewer social-media postings, public service announcements and advertisements. The agency spent only $57,000 of more than $6 million that had been budgeted for ads.

    “We also found that VA did not have clear goals for evaluating the effectiveness of its outreach activities,” the GAO found.

    The VA attributed the drop-off in outreach to leadership changes and a realignment of suicide-prevention efforts. The agency identified Veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority last year and released a 10-year strategy to address the crisis.

    From 2008 through 2016, more than 6,000 Veterans took their lives each year – totaling more than 54,000 deaths.

    In April 2017, former Navy SEAL Ryan Larkin became one of them.

    The 29-year-old had deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan before leaving the service in 2016, and he struggled to return to civilian life when he got home.

    "Ryan kept saying that something was wrong with his head, but nobody was listening," his father, Frank, said during remarks with Trump at the White House on Tuesday.

    Frank Larkin said after his son's death, researchers discovered he had been suffering from a traumatic brain injury caused by exposures to blasts in training and on the battlefield.

    He praised the president's order, specifically the aspects furthering research, and urged anyone struggling now not to lose hope.

    "We will find a better way," Frank Larkin said. "Failure is not an option."

    Veterans needing help can call the VA crisis line by dialing 800-273-8255 and selecting option 1. They can also send a text message to 838255, or chat with counselors online.

    Source

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  • Vet Suicide 001

     

    President Trump signed a new executive order on Tuesday aimed at decreasing the number of Veteran suicides and creating a task force of state and local groups to raise awareness of the crisis.

    Currently, about 20 Veterans die by suicide every day - a rate 1.5 times higher than those who have not served in the military. During a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Trump urged an expansion of outreach programs by awarding grants to different community programs combatting the issue.

    "Veterans' suicide is a tragedy of staggering proportions," Trump said at the signing ceremony, while surrounded by military families and Veterans' organizations. "Today we can help end this crisis."

    Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Musil told Fox News one contributing factor is "isolationism... they feel alone." Several of his former soldiers have committed suicide.

    Trump added that the high Veterans' suicide rate can be solved only if the entire country works together to build communities supporting and protecting Veterans from the moment they return from service to civilian life.

    "They courageously fulfill their duties to our nation, now we must fulfill our duties to them," Trump continued.

    His new order is being dubbed the PREVENTS initiative, an acronym that stands for "President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide."

    The White House said the new task force created by the executive order will create a grant system similar to the Housing and Urban Development VA Supportive Housing program, which provides funding for state and local programs that help Veterans and their families experiencing homelessness find permanent housing.

    The White House, however, has not indicated the expected costs for the proposed grants with the PREVENTS initiative, which would have to be approved by Congress.

    The executive order comes after a report by the Government Accountability Office last December that revealed the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs had only spent $57,000 of the $6.2 million available for paid media, which could have gone towards suicide prevention efforts.

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  • 2 Vet Kill Themselves

     

    Two Veterans killed themselves at separate Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in Georgia over the weekend, refocusing attention on what the VA has called its “highest clinical priority.”

    The first death happened Friday in a parking lot at the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, according to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s office. The second occurred Saturday outside the main entrance to the Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur on Clairmont Road. The VA declined to identify the victims or describe the circumstances of their deaths, citing privacy concerns.

    An email the VA sent the Georgia Department of Veterans Service Monday about the Atlanta incident said VA clinical staff provided immediate aid to the male victim and called 911. The Veteran was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.“

    This incident remains under investigation and we are working with the local investigating authorities,” the email continued. “The family has been contacted and offered support.”

    The victim in Atlanta was 68 years old and shot himself, according to a person familiar with the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

    More than 6,000 Veterans killed themselves each year between 2008 and 2016. In 2016, 202 people died by suicide in Georgia. And between 2015 and 2016, the suicide rate per 100,000 people for Veterans ages 18 to 34 increased from 40.4 to 45 nationwide, despite the VA’s efforts to tackle the problem.

    In 2013, the VA disclosed that two of its officials had retired, three had been reprimanded and others were facing unspecified “actions” after reports of rampant mismanagement and patient deaths at the VA hospital in Decatur. Federal inspectors issued scathing audits that linked mismanagement to the deaths of three Veterans there.In one case, a man who was trying to see a VA psychiatrist who was unavailable was told by hospital workers to take public transportation to an emergency room. He never did and died by suicide the next day. Another man died of an apparent drug overdose after providers failed to connect him with a psychiatrist. And a third patient died of an overdose of drugs given to him by another patient. The death of a fourth Veteran, who killed himself in a hospital bathroom, later came to light.

    In 2014, the Atlanta center drew attention again after the murder-suicide of Marine Veteran Kisha Holmes. She killed her three children and then herself at the family’s Cobb County apartment. VA officials knew she was in distress and had identified her as a suicide risk.

    And in November, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying the Veterans Health Administration had spent only $57,000 of the $6.2 million budgeted for fiscal year 2018 for suicide prevention media outreach because of leadership turnover and reorganization within the agency.“

    By not assigning key leadership responsibilities and clear lines of reporting, VHA’s ability to oversee the suicide prevention media outreach activities was hindered and these outreach activities decreased,” the report said.

    The VA said Monday it was reviewing its policies and procedures to see if changes are needed, adding all of its facilities provide “same-day urgent primary and mental health care services.” The agency also highlighted its Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and www.Veteranscrisisline.net

    “Suicide prevention is VA’s highest clinical priority,” the VA said in a prepared statement. “We are working alongside dozens of partners, including [the Department of Defense], to deploy suicide prevention programming that supports all current and former service members — even those who do not come to VA for care.”

    Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, released a statement Monday, saying he was in touch with the VA about its investigations of last weekend’s suicides, calling them “tragedies that we hear about far too often.”“

    While we have taken a number of steps to address and prevent Veteran suicide, this weekend’s tragic deaths clearly indicate that we must do better,” he said. “We will redouble our efforts on behalf of our Veterans and their loved ones, including our efforts to reduce the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health issues.”

    Mike Roby, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, said he also is keeping in touch with the VA about what happened.“

    I and my senior staff will stay in close contact with both medical directors and their staff as they work with the federal authorities through the investigations,” he said by email. “Our field service officers located at both medical centers remain ready to assist and support Veterans and their families.”

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  • Vet Suicides 003

     

    WASHINGTON — Three Veterans killed themselves last week on Department of Veterans Affairs health care properties, barely a month after President Trump announced an aggressive task force to address the unremitting problem of Veteran suicide.

    Mr. Trump’s executive order was a tacit acknowledgment of what the deaths rendered obvious: The department has not made a dent in stemming the approximately 20 suicide deaths every day among Veterans, about one and a half times more often than those who have not served in the military, according to the most recent statistics available from the department.

    A 2015 measure that required officials to provide annual reviews of mental health care and suicide prevention programs has found that Veterans often receive good mental health care at many Department of Veterans Affairs centers — but that has not decreased suicide rates. A relatively new program, known as the Mayor’s Challenge, that helps city and state governments reach more Veterans through more public health programs via Veterans Affairs partnerships has shown some promise, but no data exists yet demonstrating suicide reductions.

    While the V.A. has been the public face of the issue, Veterans are in many ways an amplification of the same factors that drive suicide in the broader American population: a fragmented health care system, a shortage of mental health resources, especially in rural areas, a lack of funding for suicide research and easy access to guns. All of these contribute to the drastically increased suicide rate among all Americans, which rose 33 percent from 1999 to 2017.

    High rates of homelessness, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress and a military culture that can be resistant to seeking help are all aggravating factors for Veterans, whose rates of suicide have been the subject of numerous hearings on Capitol Hill.

    “We are not even at the Sputnik stage of understanding problems with mental health,” said Robert Wilkie, the secretary of Veterans affairs. “I have said this is the No. 1 clinical priority that is made manifest by the president putting V.A. as the lead for this national task force.”

    Some programs to address Veteran suicide are showing promise.

    A study of nine V.A. emergency rooms found 45 percent fewer suicidal behaviors among patients who received follow-up outreach after suicide attempts; as a result of this study, all V.A. medical centers have put into place the Safety Planning Intervention program.

    Since the department in 2017 began tracking suicides at Veterans Affairs facilities — among the most high-profile of Veteran suicides — there have been more than 260 suicide attempts, 240 of which have been interrupted, department officials say.

    Yet about 70 percent of Veterans do not regularly use the V.A., access to a federal department that may be viewed as central to suicide prevention.

    “The vast majority of Veterans that die by suicide are not seeking services,” said Julie Cerel, a professor at the University of Kentucky and president of the American Association of Suicidology. “So the V.A.s are kind of at a loss of how to serve this group of people. Yet when they do end their lives, it becomes the responsibility of the V.A.,” in the viewpoint of critics, she said.

    Leadership turmoil — a consistent trait of the Trump administration — has complicated the V.A.’s attempt to address suicide. The agency’s director of its prevention office, Caitlin Thompson, resigned in 2017 after tangling with political appointees. According to a Government Accountability Office report last year, the office has essentially languished. Most notably, the office spent $57,000 of its $6.2 million media budget, and its presence on social media declined 77 percent from the levels of 2015, the report found. Lawmakers expressed outrage.

    Although Veterans Affairs officials blamed miscommunication at the time, Keita Franklin, the department’s new executive director of suicide prevention, said that the program had been delayed to come up with a more targeted marketing campaign, called #BeThere. It will try to “talk more specifically with targeted audiences,” she said, noting campaigns focused on 18- to 24-year-olds might focus on texting a friend in trouble while the over-60 crowd would be encouraged to have coffee. Some advertisements would be honed for women, for example, or for Veterans in rural communities.

    Yet myriad political, structural and cultural impediments exist far beyond the administration’s walls.

    Many suicide experts believe that a lack of proper training in suicide prevention in the broader mental health field, hobbled by a lack of research into a matter that has stymied so many public health officials, is central to the issue.

    In 2017, the suicide rate in the United States reached 14 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it is the nation’s 10th leading cause of death. Yet only $68 million is expected to be spent on suicide research this year, according to the National Institutes of Health. In comparison, breast cancer will receive about $709 million in research funding and $243 million is expected to be spent this year researching prostate cancer.

    “There has been tremendous research on breast cancer and AIDS, which lowered mortality rates on diseases we once thought once insurmountable,” Dr. Cerel said. “However, we have not had comparable research into suicide.”

    Guns are used in the majority of Veteran suicides, in large part because gun ownership is high for that group. Last year, about 80 percent of suicides among Veterans in Montana were by firearms, said Claire R. Oakley, the director of health promotion at RiverStone Health, a community provider attached to the Mayor’s Challenge in Billings, Mont., which has had among the highest rates of suicide in the nation.

    “Awareness is important but it does take funding and there is no capacity funding to do this work,” she said, noting that volunteers had filled many of the gaps.

    Proper storage techniques and training friends and family to know when to try to remove guns from vulnerable Veterans are still lacking. Lawmakers who move to reduce gun access to suicidal Veterans often face resistance.

    “By reducing access to firearms you see a drop right away,” said Jane Pearson, chairwoman of the Suicide Research Consortium at the National Institute of Mental Health. “We have to think of a way forward that is fair, that does not take away weapons unfairly.”

    Several states have enacted “extreme risk protection order” laws, which help law enforcement and family members temporarily remove guns from, or prohibit their purchases by, people who may be a threat to themselves.

    Perhaps most vexing is a military culture that emphasizes discipline and perseverance, which can backfire when a Veteran is suicidal.

    “People who join the military have this sense of boot straps, ‘I can do it,’” Dr. Franklin said. “Then you become a Vet and they say come in and get mental health care, and inwardly they don’t feel good doing it.”

    Mr. Trump’s executive order would also task multiple federal agencies — like the Agriculture Department in rural areas — to pitch in on Veteran suicide prevention and to give grants to local governments to work with health care partners to better reach Veterans.

    “There is no single cause of suicide,” Dr. Franklin said. “When we pull a thread, we see a complex situation with 25 factors playing. We can’t prevent suicide from where we sit in the V.A. by ourselves.”

    Allowing local governments to join with health care providers has also shown promise. The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention, for instance, works through 10 regional coalitions to provide Veterans with mental health services as well as things like entrepreneurship training.

    A major complication is reaching the Veterans to start. Many use both V.A. and community providers; providers outside the system have varied forms of insurance coverage.

    “There are a lot of things the V.A. have done right,” Dr. Pearson said. “The issue is the challenge in our health care system with people jumping from one system to another.”

    The Mayor’s and Governor’s Challenges — which team governments with community health care providers to better reach and service Veterans — show promise in connecting Veterans to needed services inside and outside the Department of Veterans Affairs.

    Brent Arnspiger, the suicide prevention coordinator for the Michael E. DeBakey V.A. Medical Center in Houston, works with a local provider to send Veterans who are not eligible for V.A. services to that provider’s facilities, and vice versa. “We have a warm handoff instead of just giving someone a phone number,” he said. “In the last three months, we have given 30 consults there,” he said of the health centers, “and they brought five to us.”

    Other states are eagerly embracing the same challenge. “The Commonwealth of Virginia has one of the largest populations of Veterans, service members and their families in the nation,” said Carlos Hopkins, the Virginia secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs, “which gives us a particularly keen awareness of the importance of tackling this national epidemic head on.”

    Source

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  • Firearm Storage

     

    WASHINGTON — Today the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that it has recently formalized two partnerships aimed at preventing Veteran suicide.

    Effective January, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) began collaborating with VA to advance and improve the quality of life for Veterans to prevent suicides. Through this partnership, VA and AFSP have been exchanging research on suicide and prevention efforts. AFSP has also begun sharing VA suicide-prevention messaging.

    Effective last November, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) began working with VA to develop a program that will empower communities to engage in safe firearm-storage practices. The program will include information to help communities create coalitions around promoting and sustaining firearm safety with an emphasis on service members, Veterans and their families.

    “We want all Americans to know that suicide is preventable.” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “By working with local organizations and community partners, we’re confident that we can make a meaningful difference to reduce suicide among Veterans.”

    These innovative partnerships highlight the shared mission between the VA, nonprofit organizations and local communities to end suicide among those who have served or are currently serving.

    Research shows there is no single cause for suicide: It is the outcome of multiple contributing factors and events. However, environmental factors, such as access to lethal means, increase the risk for suicide. Firearms are one of the most deadly and common methods for suicide among Americans — particularly for service members and Veterans.

    Veterans in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255.

    Reporters covering Veteran mental health issues can visit ReportingOnSuicide.org for important guidance on how to communicate about suicide.

    See here for Secretary Wilkie’s recent opinion editorial outlining VA’s progress on preventing Veteran suicide.

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  • DVA Logo 32

     

    Robert Wilkie has had it with people stereotyping Veterans as victims — or at least that's the framing of a recent letter the Veterans Affairs secretary fired off to the American Federation of Government Employees on Monday, the largest union of federal employees in the United States.

    After a union representative claimed that the government shutdown would lead to Veteran suicide — yes, that's right, someone said that — the head of the VA waded into the fray to chastise the rep, the union, and anyone else that would dare frame Veterans as victims for political gain.

    "While VA is dedicated to helping all Veterans, particularly those who are truly at risk, the notion that most Veterans are so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm is preposterous, which is why Veterans and Veteran advocates are continuously fighting this shopworn canard," Wilkie wrote in the letter addressed to David Cox, the president of AFGE.

    The letter was in response to statements by AFGE Local President Edward Canales, a Veteran himself, who told ABC news last week that "if this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We're going to have suicides."

    It's a claim Wilkie has demanded AFGE walk back, adding that using "Veterans as pawns in a political debate while exploiting the serious issue of Veteran suicide is nothing short of disgraceful."

    In his letter, the VA chief went on to list all the great things Veterans contribute to the workforce, from character to civic engagement, which is why employers often look to hire transitioning service members. Employers like the federal government, which has some 250,000 Veterans making up a third of the employees who are currently going without pay, ABC News reported. According to Military.com, the federal government is the country's largest single employer of disabled Veterans.

    Additionally, like the rest of the military, the Coast Guard has continued to work during the shutdown, but unlike the other services which fall under the Department of Defense, Coasties are under the purview of Homeland Security, which means they're doing it without pay.

    While Canales' claim did play up the "broken Vet" image, the government shutdown is likely to have some impact on a number of military Veterans, it doesn't matter how star-spangled awesome the Veteran community may be.

    You can read the letter from Wilkie below:

    Dear President Cox:

    One of the most insulting and misleading stereotypes about Veterans today is that of the "Veteran as victim."

    While VA is dedicated to helping all Veterans, particularly those who are truly at risk, the notion that most Veterans are so fragile from their service that the slightest hint of hardship can push them to the brink of mental breakdown or even self-harm is preposterous, which is why Veterans and Veteran advocates are continuously fighting1this shopworn canard.

    As leader of the largest union representing VA employees, many of whom are Veterans, you should know how harmful this stereotype is to Veterans, especially those attempting to enter the civilian workforce following their service. That is why I was surprised and disappointed to see one of the American Federation of Government Employees' (AFGE) presidents pushing the "Veteran as victim" myth, and going so far as to exploit the real tragedy of Veteran suicide to make political arguments about the partial government shutdown.

    "If this shutdown does not stop, we are going to have fatalities. We're going to have suicides," AFGE Local President Edward M. Canales said earlier this week, according to ABC News.

    While it is apparent some AFGE leaders consider Veterans as victims, allow me to inform you of the true character traits of those who have worn the uniform:

    • Veterans are models of civic engagement, holding stronger ties to their communities and volunteering and voting at higher rates than their non-Veteran counterparts.
    • The Veterans' unemployment rate is lower than the national average, in part because companies5 often look to hire Veterans for complex and demanding jobs, citing their leadership and work ethic.

    In short, America's Veterans are model citizens and leaders, and almost every American recognizes that. AFGE Local President Canales' attempt to use Veterans as pawns in a political debate while exploiting the serious issue of Veteran suicide is nothing short of disgraceful.

    I ask you to apologize publicly for your AFGE colleague's reckless comments and to outline the steps you plan to take to ensure AFGE leaders demonstrate proper respect for our nation's heroes.

    I look forward to your response.

    Sincerely,

    Robert L. Wilkie

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  • Suicide Prevention 3

     

    The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention (OMHSP) and VA Midwest Health Care Network (Veterans Integrated Service Network [VISN] 23) have been working with academic researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU) to spearhead a community-based program as one of many efforts aimed at lowering the rate of Veteran suicide.

    Aligned with the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, the program, which began in early 2019, is designed to increase community involvement within VISN 23 by leveraging the reach and impact of local stakeholders.

    “We recognize that just as suicide has no single determining cause, no single agency can prevent Veteran suicide,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “In working with our partners on this pilot program, we are adding new opportunities to provide our Veterans with whole-health solutions before they reach a point of crisis.”

    Charged with carrying out the program’s multiple objectives, VISN 23 has deployed 10 education and outreach specialists, who have received formal training from VA leadership and PERU on how to:

    • Assess community readiness for increased engagement efforts.
    • Build local coalitions to facilitate wider and more frequent touchpoints with Veterans.
    • Use community-specific public health data to tailor interventions to population needs.
    • Provide metrics on program effectiveness to inform national implementation strategy.

    Learn more about VA’s suicide prevention resources and programs here. Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, send a text message to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

    Media covering this issue can download VA’s Safe Messaging Best Practices fact sheet or visit www.ReportingOnSuicide.org for important guidance on how to communicate about suicide.

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  • DVA Logo 003

     

    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) left millions of dollars unspent that were available for suicide prevention efforts this year, according to a report released Monday.

    The report, published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), found that the VA had $6.2 million available for suicide prevention paid media in fiscal 2018. The department had spent just $57,000 of that budget as of September, the report found.

    The GAO report notes that the VA identified suicide prevention as its highest clinical priority in 2018.

    The department's use of social media for Veterans suicide prevention outreach also dropped in fiscal 2017 and 2018, the report found. After developing 339 pieces of social media content for Veterans suicide prevention in former President Obama's final year in office in 2016, the department posted 159 pieces of content in fiscal year 2017 and had made 47 posts in fiscal 2018 as of July 2018.

    Officials at the Veterans Health Administration, the health-care branch of the department, told the GAO that the drop in suicide prevention media outreach was because of leadership turnover dating back to 2017.

    The GAO recommended in its report that the VA develop an approach for overseeing its suicide prevention media outreach and develop metric targets for that outreach.

    Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told the Military Times that the VA "has failed" to do enough to "inform the public about the resources available to Veterans in crisis."

    “At a time when 20 Veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to Veterans in crisis,” Walz said. “Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of Veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority.”

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  • Be There

     

    To mark Suicide Prevention Month this September, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is shining a light on effective ways to prevent Veteran suicide with its Be There campaign.

    The campaign highlights the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, provides information about VA mental health and suicide prevention resources, and helps individuals and organizations start the conversation around Veteran mental health in their communities.

    “In our various communities, everyone is in a position to make a difference for a Veteran who may be at risk for suicide,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who recorded a video about VA’s strategies to prevent Veteran suicide. “A common misconception is that you need special training to talk safely about suicide risk or show concern for someone who is in distress. One simple act of kindness could help save a life. I encourage everyone this September, and beyond, to take the first step in acting as that support system.”

    Talking with a Veteran about mental health or suicide risk may be challenging, but VA encourages community leaders, colleagues, family and friends to simply “Be There” by sharing messages of support that can help show a Veteran you care. VA has also collaborated with community partners and is asking individuals across the country this month to share resources with Veterans in their lives via the BeThereForVeterans.com webpage.

    Veterans in crisis or having thoughts of suicide — and those who know a Veteran in crisis — can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat or text to 838255.

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  • Suicide Prevention

     

    The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently announced its partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to bolster Veteran suicide prevention initiatives.

    VA and DHS, the third-largest federal employer of Veterans in the U.S., with Veterans representing approximately 28 percent of its workforce, share the goals of improving Veterans’ health and well-being and increasing Veterans’ access to mental health services and support where needed.

    The two agencies will work together to spread awareness of mental health and VA suicide prevention resources among DHS Veteran employees and to explore innovative ways to enroll DHS-employed Veterans in VA care. These opportunities include highlighting VA programs and resources in DHS newsletters or emails, or leveraging the nationwide network of VA Suicide Prevention Coordinators to encourage outreach to local and regional DHS offices.

    “Under President Trump’s leadership, we are extremely proud to be working with DHS to prevent Veteran suicide,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Our two agencies are committed to ensuring that Veterans receive the care they need, and this landmark partnership will allow us to leverage the strengths of both organizations to reach more Veterans and save more lives.”

    The partnership, which was launched in November, will allow VA to reach more Veterans outside VA care — before they reach a crisis point — and form a vital part of VA’s National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide.

    This is not the first time VA and DHS have joined forces to prevent Veteran suicide. The two agencies have been working together with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) through President Trump’s Executive Order to improve mental health resources for Veterans transitioning from active duty to civilian life. Research has shown that service members transitioning to Veteran status are at increased risk for suicide. To combat this risk, DoD, VA and DHS are working to ensure that new Veterans receive access to VA mental health care and other services from the moment they transition from the military.

    Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call the Veteran and Military Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255, and press 1; send a text message to 838255; or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

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  • Robert Neilson

     

    Much of the focus by the Veterans Health Administration has been on the growing number of younger Veterans who commit suicide. However, statistics show that the suicide rate for elderly Veterans is higher than that of non-Veterans of the same age.

    Robert Neilson was drafted in 1961. He spent two years in the Army just before the Vietnam War. Three years ago, the 76-year-old came into the VA Hospital in San Diego after contemplating suicide.

    "That's what really brought me into the emergency room. That wasn't really the first time," Neilson said. "Two months after I got out of the service, I attempted suicide."

    After he got out of the Army, Neilson remembers going back home to New Jersey. He was standing on a subway platform watching a speeding train."

    "And I figured if I just hold my hands in the air, I could just let [the train] suck me in," Neilson said. "Somebody shouted, 'What are you doing?' And that was enough to snap me out of the trance. But I still didn't seek any help. I just figured, OK, I'll just struggle through life."

    And he did. It would take another 50 years for Neilson to get help dealing with the trauma of a sexual assault he experienced in the military.

    "And the guilt was, I wasn't strong enough to overpower that person. Plus, it was a high-ranking person," he said.

    That was all he wanted to say about the incident that has haunted him most of his life.

    All sorts of service-related issues can lie dormant only to crop up later in life, said Ron Stark. Stark founded Moving to Zero, a nonprofit group in San Diego aimed at preventing Veteran suicide. He counsels fellow Veterans there who have contemplated suicide and more than a few are elderly.

    Stark retired from the Navy in 1994. He served aboard a submarine in the Arctic in the 1970s and again during Desert Storm. He understands that, for some older Veterans, no accomplishment is ever enough.

    "We have things about stolen valor. Nobody wants to misrepresent themselves," he said. "So I'm a Vietnam-era Veteran. I'm not a Vietnam Veteran. I was in Desert Storm, but I wasn't in combat. We're always talking about what we're not quite."

    Veterans struggling with suicide aren't always wrestling with memories of combat.

    Stark suffered from depression most of his life and he never saw combat. He remembers sitting by the roadside with a pistol and contemplated pulling the trigger.

    "The military didn't make me who I was," he said.

    But the military establishes life-long habits, both good and bad. A soldier strives to be someone people can rely on, especially in critical situations.

    "You have a bad day at work and you go home. You have a bad day on a submerged submarine, then people die," he said.

    So if you're not feeling 100 percent, maybe it's better to keep it to yourself, he notes. Stark describes suicidal feelings as a brief moment of blackness when other options fade from view.

    The VA National Suicide Data Report for 2005 to 2016, which came out in September 2018, highlights an alarming rise in suicides among Veterans age 18 to 34 — 45 per 100,000 Veterans. Younger Veterans have the highest rate of suicide among Veterans, but those 55 and older still represent the largest number of suicides.

    Moreover, the suicide rate for older Veterans is higher than that of non-Veterans. For Veterans age 55 to 74 years old, the rate of suicide is 26 per 100,000, while nationally, the suicide rate in the same age group is 17.4 per 100,000. The rate ticks up even higher for Veterans over 85 years old.

    The Veterans Health Administration has focused on finding risk factors that could lead someone to kill themselves, such as isolation, previous suicidal thoughts and access to firearms. Another big risk factor is that older men are also more likely to reject treatment for mental health issues.

    Among the people who have those risk factors, the VA still doesn't know who will attempt suicide, said Colin Depp, a psychologist at the San Diego VA who has researched suicide among older Veterans.

    "We're not very far ahead in understanding who's out there, who's really likely to take their lives in the next hours, days, months," he said.

    The VA emphasizes getting potentially suicidal Veterans in the door, where health-care workers deploy a range of treatments, he said.

    That's what has helped 76-year-old Robert Nielson. He was 73 years old before he sought help.

    As part of his own treatment, Neilson is now writing letters of encouragement to fellow Veterans who are just beginning treatment as part of a VA program.

    Neilson pulled out one of the letters he wrote and explained how he can help a Veteran he will never meet in person. "I don't know you but I have faith in you. You're going to make it," he read.

    The letters are just one more nudge to keep Veterans away from that dark moment when suicide feels like the only option.

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  • Suicide Data

     

    The suicide rate among Vets has not improved and remains a deeply disturbing problem, despite work by the VA and others, according to a VA analysis and statistics obtained by Fox News.

    Last week, the VA released findings from a years-long investigation into Veteran suicide data from 2005-2015 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The findings are clear: the suicide rate is constant.

    Veterans are more than twice as likely to die by suicide as non-Veterans, according to the VA report. Additionally, VA researchers found the number of Vets who take their own lives each day “remained unchanged at 20.” And even more-recent data obtained by Fox News suggests things may not be much better in 2018.

    Even for the mother of a U.S. Marine who took his own life after battling PTSD, and who has since dedicated her own to preventing Veteran suicides, the numbers are stunning.

    “I had no idea it was that bad,” said Janine Lutz. “That’s really lighting a fire under my butt to work harder."

    The Veterans Crisis Line provides 24/7 support to Veterans in distress, as well as concerned friends and family members. Staffers are available by phone at 800-273-8255 (Press 1), online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, and via text at 838255.

    The volume of phone calls the Crisis Line receives is staggering. The VA told Fox News that since October 31, 2017, the Veterans Crisis Line has fielded approximately 222,000 calls from Veterans who are having thoughts of suicide. That is in addition to the 49,000 calls from family members or friends who are concerned about a Veteran who is considering suicide.

    That breaks down to nearly 950 calls from Veterans (or nearly 40 calls per hour) every day since Halloween, and more than 200 calls a day from friends and family.

    "The mother of all battalions"

    Lutz, who lives in Florida, is affectionately referred to by many in the Veterans' community as “the mother of all battalions” for her efforts to bring Veterans of all stripes together, and prevent more Veteran suicides, via the LCpl Janos V Lutz Live To Tell Foundation.

    Lutz started Live To Tell to honor the memory of her son “Jonny,” a Marine who took his own life while under the influence of a cabinet’s worth of medication for his PTSD. Since then, she has sued the government for her son’s death, eventually winning a settlement out of court, but her work didn’t stop there.

    “About five months after [Jonny’s] death, I woke up one day and I was mad,” Lutz told Fox News. “I was mad knowing that my son wasn't the first to die like this. And I said why didn't somebody tell me… why aren't we doing more as a community? And it was then I decided that I was gonna be the voice, and fight for those who fought for us.”

    It was only a year after her son’s death that Lutz made her first foray into advocacy, organizing a motorcycle rally that brought out an unexpectedly large number of people from across the country. She was excited about the hundreds of supporters who turned out, but unsure of what to do next.

    That was until Lutz’s niece played a song for her that she says “grabbed me by the chest,” and inspired a plan to save the lives of Veterans across the country:

    Buddy Up

    “It’s time to buddy up ‘cause yup, this is wrong.

     

    Surviving battle, but die when we’re home.

    Yeah it hurts, that’s why I made this song.

    It’s time to see the signs, like the lights when it’s on.”

    Those lyrics are from the song “Red Flags” by Soldier Hard, an artist whose real name is Jeff Barillaro and who also happens to be an Army combat Veteran. Barillaro dedicated himself to creating music that gives a voice to Veterans, and the issues they experience along with their friends and families. When Lutz heard the lyrics to his song, she says she knew immediately what she had to do.

    “He said ‘you all need to buddy up’… and he was talking to the Veterans out there,” Lutz says. “When I heard that, I said that's it. I'm gonna get these guys together, build local communities, facilitate – I don’t know how, but that’s what I’m gonna do.”

    Using Soldier Hard’s song as inspiration, Lutz has since established two “Lutz Buddy Up” social clubs, one in Florida and one in Massachusetts, and this summer she’s touring the country in the hopes of establishing even more. The concept is simple: bringing Veterans together (and even first responders) so they can support one another while sharing a meal, playing a game or two, or just chatting.

    “We welcome our Veterans just as they are, wherever they are,” Lutz says. “Whatever mindset they're in, we welcome them. All we want to do is connect them with their peers, and it's just been a great success. Dozens and dozens of success stories.”

    Lutz says membership has skyrocketed from just a handful back in 2014, to well over 500 in 2018 – including Veterans from every U.S. armed conflict since the Korean War.

    Asked what she would tell Veterans who might be suffering in silence, or friends and family who might be concerned about a Veteran they know, Lutz says to remember that connecting with peers is the key.

    “They need to speak to their peers, someone who has walked in their shoes,” Lutz says, before pointing out that this is the exact philosophy soldiers employ on the battlefield.

    “That's what they fight for, to keep the guy next to them alive… Yeah, they have a mission, but the biggest part is making sure the guy right next to you is alive and well,” Lutz says. “You're watching each other, and that’s what they have to continue when they get home…

    “So if you don’t have any local buddies you know, find some in your community because they're everywhere, and they're looking for help too,” Lutz says. “Reach out to other Veterans in your communities because that is your best medicine - your peer who has walked in your shoes.”

    If you are a Veteran in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, or if you are someone who knows a Veteran in crisis, call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year at 800-273-8255 and press 1. You can also chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or send a text message to 838255.

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  • DVA Logo 33

     

    The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will convene for the inaugural Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide among Service Members, Veterans and their Families (SMVF) on Feb. 6, in Washington, D.C.

    Through data analysis and their current suicide prevention initiatives, 10 states were formally invited to participate in the Governor’s Challenge, of which seven accepted, to include, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas and Virginia.

    State leaders will meet to develop a plan to implement the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, which provides a framework for identifying priorities, organizing efforts and contributing to a national focus on Veteran suicide prevention.

    The collaboration between the agencies is an example of VA Secretary Wilkie’s aim to partner with organizations who share the same goal of preventing suicide among the nation’s Veteran population.

    “Preventing Veteran suicide is our number one clinical priority,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “This is a national problem that demands a nationwide response – the Mayor’s Challenge and the Governor’s Challenge provide a roadmap to develop that national focus of effort.”

    In March 2018, VA and SAMHSA initiated the Mayor’s Challenge with a local community-level focus. The Governor’s Challenge takes this effort to the state level, incorporating existing community strategic plans within respective states and supporting the initiative with state-level influence and resources.

    Earlier this week, Secretary Wilkie mentioned the importance of the Mayor’s challenge and Governor’s challenge as part of an Op-Ed outlining VA’s progress on suicide prevention for Veterans, which is the department’s top clinical priority.

    VA and HHS will leverage technical expertise from both agencies to ensure the work is codified, evaluated for effectiveness and shared with municipalities to optimize the collective efforts of all partners invested in preventing suicide across the SMVF demographic group.

    For more information on VA’s suicide prevention campaign, visit www.Veteranscrisisline.net/bethere. For information on SAMHSA’s suicide prevention efforts, visit www.samhsa.gov/suicide-prevention/samhsas-efforts.

    Veterans in crisis or having thoughts of suicide — and those who know a Veteran in crisis — can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255.

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  • Be There 002

     

    VA is launching national advertising to promote the Be There campaign, starting this week with an advertisement in Times Square and then rolling out nationwide in the coming weeks through a new partnership with PSA Advertising Inc.

    Suicide prevention is the top clinical priority for VA, and raising awareness of the resources and information available to Veterans is a key component of VA’s public health approach to preventing suicide. Through the Be There campaign, VA highlights the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, provides information about VA mental health and suicide prevention resources, and helps individuals and organizations start the conversation around Veteran mental health in their communities.

    “We recognize that suicide is a complex issue — one that we cannot necessarily end on our own here at VA,” said Wendy Lakso, acting deputy suicide prevention program director for VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. “We need everyone to understand how to be there for the Veterans in their lives.”

    Through the partnership with PSA Advertising, VA will gain access to available billboard placements across the country. At the launch of this effort, VA will place ads in the top 100 largest markets to promote both Be There and the Veterans Crisis Line.

    VA will also roll out market- and audience-specific advertisements to reach target populations in communities beyond the largest markets. Using data on relevant topics such as firearm ownership, opioid use, Veteran population density and more, VA will identify messages that reflect each community’s specific challenges and potential risk factors and feature Veterans who mirror the local population.

    “By promoting the Be There campaign broadly, we aim to reach not only Veterans, but also their family members, friends and other supporters in their communities,” said Lakso. “Our goal is to prevent suicide among Veterans nationwide. To do that, we need to do as much as possible to ensure that everyone knows the role they can play in suicide prevention.”

    We can all #BeThere for Veterans. Guided by the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, VA and its partners are helping Veterans and former service members get the right care whenever they need it. By equipping communities with resources and services, VA and its partners can reach all Veterans and former service members and can save lives. Additional resources for supporting Veterans and their loved ones, community partners, and clinicians can be found at www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/resources.asp.

    If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.

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  • Commits Suicide

     

    A military Veteran took his own life outside the Cleveland VA Medical Center early Monday, according to officials.

    The VA Northeast Ohio Health Care System said in a statement that “our deepest condolences go out to the loved ones affected by this death.”

    The suicide comes after three Veterans took their lives in a five-day span in Georgia and Texas earlier this month.

    Gary Pressley, 29, was found in the parking lot of a Georgia facility with a gunshot wound on April 5. Olen Hancock, 68, shot himself near Atlanta and was pronounced dead the following day, and another Veteran shot himself in a VA waiting room and died on April 9.

    “Every one of these is a gut-wrenching experience for our 24,000 mental health providers and all of us that work for VA,” Richard Stone of the Veterans Health Administration said at the time.

    More than 6,000 Veterans committed suicide in 2016, according to a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA officials said in January that suicide prevention is the organization’s “top clinical priority.” More than 2 million Veterans sought and received help for mental health issues through the VA in 2017.

    Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said earlier this month that ways must be found to combat homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness among Veterans.

    “The sad thing that we confront every day is that of the 20 Veteran suicides that occur across the country 14 of those Veterans are outside of our department,” Wilkie said.

    “What I’ve envisioned is the opening of the aperture to the states and localities to get them resources to find those Veterans. One of the tragedies is that many of those Veterans who take their lives come from my father’s era - Vietnam. So we have Americans whose problems in many cases began building when Lyndon Johnson was president. We have to tackle this issue in a way that we haven’t tackled it before.”

    Officials urge Veterans and concerned relatives to contact the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 if they need assistance.

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  • Vet Finds Salvation

     

    Randy Elston graduated from VA San Diego Healthcare System’s Aspire Center on Sept. 4 after six months of care at the facility, which assists Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan recover from wounds of war. For the 38-year-old Marine Veteran, the thought of completing the program fills him with something that has been absent from his life as of late – hope.

    Hope in Randy’s life means the promise of seeing his two young daughters again, the chance of getting on his feet with a place to live and a future career, and having something to look forward to with each day. Not very long ago, none of these things were possible and the burden almost ended his life on several occasions.

    Elston’s troubles began with difficulties in his immediate family long before he joined the military. They continued in his service, with deployments and experiences that led to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After being honorably discharged, Randy faced a strained marriage, which eventually ended in divorce.

    “When my marriage imploded, I didn’t know how the court was going to look at me and say I’m able to take care of my kids,” Randy said. “I just tried to check out.”

    One night when talking to his ex-wife, she ran out to take her kids to her brother and Randy tried to end his life with a bottle of pills.

    She came back to find him on the floor and barely managed to save his life. Randy woke up in intensive care at his local hospital, broken in many ways and without a path forward. After recovering, Randy went through several programs to help treat his mental health. While they did help move him forward, he needed something more. He was out of money, homeless and living on the streets.

    “When he came to us, he was a lost individual.”

    “After completing a program in Louisiana, I got an opportunity to come to the Aspire Center,” Randy said. “It took a while but I was finally accepted and came into the program last February.”

    Among the treatment modalities offered at the Aspire Center are: case management, vocational rehabilitation, psychotherapy, education classes, medication management, complementary/alternative therapies, social and recreational activities, and post-traumatic stress disorder treatment. In addition, Veterans are given the tools to thrive when they leave, such as help with vocational, financial, and mental health resources.

    “When Randy came to us, he was a lost individual. He had lost so many things leading to his admission into the program, his wife, contact with his children, no home and no care,” said Dr. Lu Le, staff psychiatrist at the Aspire Center. “He was a very appropriate candidate for our program, being very heavily exposed to combat and had post-traumatic stress. I thought he would be a good fit. The initial phase of his care, I felt like, was a challenging transition. There’s definitely a transitional period where Veterans are dealing with a new way of doing things.”

    “When I came here, I had given up on myself again,” Randy said. “I didn’t want help but knew I needed it. I didn’t know what I needed. After about three or four days, I fled.”

    “In talking and building rapport, he didn’t seem open to it,” Dr. Le said. “He was still preoccupied with the stress at hand and got up and left the building.”

    “I jumped the fence behind the building and ran into oncoming freeway traffic,” Randy said. “I was running into traffic for 30 minutes trying to get people to hit me. I would run into both lanes of traffic and everyone would swerve around me or hit their brakes.”

    When he saw police helicopters in the air and police sirens approaching, he left the area. Again, he tried to end his life through several methods, all unsuccessful. In his last attempt, he was found before completing the act and eventually came back to the Aspire Center.

    “That was my turning point in my recovery,” Randy said. “I knew that I was sick, but I had a fight-or-flight instinct. I was fighting for my way of dealing with things…alone. I didn’t have an honest way of dealing with problems, so I broke down and fell apart. It all happened in the worst way.”

    Randy ended up in the mental health inpatient unit at the San Diego VA Medical Center to receive a higher level of care for what he was going through at that moment. It was restrictive but stripped down the layers and allowed him to focus on what was going on in his head and in his life. In the context of that environment, he could see what an opportunity the Aspire Center was in supporting his recovery. Randy realized his mistake and wrote letters to the Aspire Center staff, pleading for readmission.

    “I haven’t had that kind of care my whole life.”

    In the meantime, he had ASPIRE staff and Veterans visit him on a regular basis at the inpatient unit, which felt reassuring in an odd way. “I’m from Arizona, and here I am in California, and people are checking in on me. Nobody knows me. Why would someone care about me? I haven’t had that kind of care my whole life,” Randy said.

    After careful consideration and monitoring of his progress to see if it was appropriate for Randy to return, the Aspire Center staff invited him back. “It was a big decision as a team because we had uncertainties based on his past,” Dr. Le said. “Through medication management to target his impulsivity, intensive psychotherapy and amazing staff support, the rest is history in terms of his growth and progress acquiring the tools to integrate back into society,” he added.

    Now with support from the Aspire Center, Randy plans on attending a trade school. He has helped with housing through social work’s HUD/VASH program and is volunteering heavily in the community. He’s also continuing with meetings and further care to help him transition. “Here is an individual who was lost and now has found meaning and purpose to his life,” Dr. Le said.

    Most importantly in his recovery, Randy has made progress in getting to see what gives him the most hope: his daughters. When he entered the program, Randy had doubts on whether he would ever see them again. Through a new attorney, he now has increased access by phone and visitation, a process he hopes will evolve as time goes on.

    September 9 – 15 was Suicide Prevention Week. If you know a Veteran who may be having an emotional crisis, get them the help they need by calling 1-800-273-8255, press 1 for Veterans.

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  • Suicide 001

     

    The suicides of at least four military Veterans at Veterans Affairs facilities last month has captured the attention of advocates and members of Congress. According to data released by the VA, there were more than 6,000 Veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016. Data published in 2017 found the risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among Veterans.

    The recent suicides come after President Trump signed an executive order in March mandating a Veteran suicide prevention task force.

    A combination of individual, relationship, and societal factors contribute to the risk of suicide, health officials say. Mental illness, including depression and anxiety, is also a risk factor for suicide. But it's important to remember there isn't just one cause.

    "A lot of very smart people are looking at this and saying it's multifactorial. We don't really understand why there's such an increase," CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook said on "CBS This Morning" last June, after the suicide deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. "One of the things we keep coming back to when these surprising events happen is you never know what is in somebody's head."

    Warning signs of suicide

    Health officials recommend that everyone familiarize themselves with the warning signs of suicide, which may include:

    • A person thinking about or threatening suicide or seeking a way to kill themself.
    • Increased substance abuse.
    • Feelings of purposelessness, anxiety, being trapped, or hopeless.
    • Social isolation and withdrawing from people and activities.
    • Expressing unusual anger, recklessness, or mood changes.

    Health officials also warn about the possibility of "suicide contagion" — meaning that people who are exposed to a suicide or attempted suicide within their family or friend group, or who hear about it in the media, may be at greater risk of suicide themselves.

    How to get help for yourself or a loved one

    If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or thinking about suicide, talk to someone who can help, such as a trusted loved one, your doctor, your licensed mental health professional if you already have one, or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.

    If you believe your loved one or friend is at risk of suicide, do not leave him or her alone. Try to get the person to seek help from a doctor or the nearest hospital emergency department or dial 911. It's important to remove access to firearms, medications, or any other potential tools they might use to harm themselves.

    For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

    The Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990, is confidential, free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

    Veterans can also talk with a trained counselor through the Veterans Crisis Line. Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone, or send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder. Or visit MilitaryCrisisLine.net if you are an active duty service member, guardsman or reservist.

    Talking about suicide risk

    If you are concerned a loved one is at risk of suicide, talk to them about it. Experts say you shouldn't be afraid to raise the issue.

    "People tend to tip-toe around sensitive issues like suicide. You shouldn't. You're not going to prompt someone to do it by asking them," Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, told "CBS This Morning."

    If you're worried about how to start the conversation, Lieberman offered some suggestions.

    Say things like "I noticed you've been looking down, or I've noticed you've said things that seem like you're really not as motivated towards life," he said.

    Then ask if there is a problem or if there's anything they want to talk about.

    "If they say something like 'I feel like my life is really empty,' say 'we need to get help,'" Lieberman said.

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  • VA Austin TX

     

    A Veterans group is calling for a multi-agency investigation into what they're calling a "suicide epidemic among Veterans and service members," after three Veterans killed themselves at Veterans Affairs facilities in the span of five days this month.

    American Veterans (AMVETS), asked the inspectors general of the VA, Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services to immediately launch "a joint, coordinated investigation into the Veteran and service member suicide epidemic, to include a macro evaluation of mental health treatment programs and personnel assigned to operate them."

    In five days this month alone, three Veterans took their lives at VA facilities, including a Veteran who died by suicide in a crowded Austin, Texas VA clinic waiting room last week. Between October 2017 and November 2018, there were 19 suicides that occurred on VA campuses -- seven of which were in parking lots -- according to AMVETS.

    AMVETS Executive Director Joseph Chenelly wrote in a letter last week that, "the fact that Veteran suicides in VA parking lots, on VA campuses, and on military bases are becoming increasingly commonplace offers cold comfort to any claims of progress."

    Chenelly said that suicides at VA facilities "appear to be protests of last resort where health care systems, treatment programs, and the underlying cultures of the responsible federal agencies have failed them."

    A spokesperson for the VA said that, due to privacy concerns, they would not discuss the specifics of the recent cases.

    "Our deepest condolences go out to the loved ones affected by these deaths," VA spokesperson Curtis Cashour said. "Any time an unexpected death occurs at a VA facility, the department conducts a comprehensive review of the case to see if changes in policies and procedures are warranted. All VA facilities provide same-day urgent primary and mental health care serves to Veterans who need them."

    It's estimated that 20 Veterans die of suicide each day, 14 of whom are outside the VA system.

    The VA's Fiscal Year 2020 budget request calls for $222 million for suicide prevention programs. But lawmakers and the White House have recently introduced new ways to combat the epidemic.

    Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., put forth a bill last month that would boost funding and mental health staff at the VA, as well as seek alternative therapies and research to address Veteran suicide. Also last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order which tasked agency officials with developing a strategy to aggressively tackle the issue of Veteran suicide.

    In his letter, Chenelly said AMVETS supports the executive order, but he expressed concerns that the initiative would take "at least a year to establish and launch into action."

    "A joint investigation through your respective offices will serve as a stopgap that will shed light on why military and Veterans suicides have reached crisis proportions as these lives continue to be lost on a daily basis," he told the inspectors general.

    According to VA officials, the department has tracked 260 suicide attempts at VA facilities since beginning to track them in 2017, 240 of which have been interrupted.

    The VA encourages any Veteran, family member, or friend concerned about a Veteran's mental health to contact the 24/7 Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or text 838255.

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