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.