Calling suicide among veterans a crisis, Sen. Walsh proposes reforms

2014-03-26T17:01:00Z 2014-03-27T00:18:03Z Calling suicide among veterans a crisis, Sen. Walsh proposes reformsBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Calling the high suicide rate among America’s combat veterans unacceptable, U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., on Wednesday laid out a plan to deal with the crisis.

“Our men and women have given a life commitment to serve our country and we need to make sure we’re taking care of them for the rest of their lives,” Walsh told The Gazette.

Roughly 22 veterans across the country commit suicide daily, according to the Veterans Administration. As a percentage, the rate is double that of the general population. Montana’s suicide rate among veterans was the highest per capita in the nation.

Walsh, a former Montana National Guard adjutant general, said undiagnosed combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries play major roles in the crisis. In some cases, it may take months for symptoms to emerge. By that time, veterans are often disconnected from their combat units and military personnel who might otherwise recognize symptoms.

In some cases, veterans struggling with PTSD or a combat-related brain injury end up receiving a wrongful discharge, meaning from the military’s point of view they suffer from a personality disorder. With that type of discharge, veterans lose their benefits, including care for combat-related mental health issues.

Walsh is proposing a seven-point plan for addressing the suicide crisis, beginning with a review of wrongful discharges, which may number more than 31,000 since the beginning of the Afghan War.

The senator also wants to extend eligibility for combat-related injuries like PTSD. Currently, special combat eligibility expires at five years, but the worst PTSD symptoms may not show up until later. Walsh wants the eligibility period extended to 15 years.

Veteran Affairs has struggled to keep enough mental health professionals on staff to handle health issues contributing to suicide. Walsh is suggesting the government repay the medical school loans of psychiatrists who commit to long-term service with the VA. In addition, the senator’s proposal calls on the VA to adequately train mental health care workers to identify suicide warning signs. And Walsh wants an annual review of VA and Department of Defense suicide prevention programs.

The Department of Defense and VA need to be working seamlessly to prevent veterans from committing suicide, Walsh said. He’s asking that military records be digitized and that prescription drugs issued by the two departments be better coordinated.

The changes will come at a cost, Walsh said, but one America needs pay.

“There is a funding challenge, but there shouldn’t be,” Walsh said. “This is a cost of war and we should take that into account.”

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