Montana plan for reducing risk of military suicides

Billings Gazette

by Editorial

Twenty-two U.S. military men and women succumb to wounds of war every day.

Americans who are serving in our nation’s all-volunteer military as well as those who have returned home are dying by suicide in alarming numbers. This terrible loss has mounted during 12 years of unending foreign combat, repeated deployments and thousands of traumatic injuries sustained by our troops.

Last week, veterans from Montana and all over our great nation went to Washington, D.C., to tell lawmakers that swift action is needed to combat military suicide. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America planted 1,892 small U.S. flags on the National Mall, representing the estimated number of military members and veterans who have died by suicide so far this year.

Standing with these concerned warriors was Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., who led an infantry battalion of the Montana National Guard in the Iraq war. It isn’t surprising that the first Iraq combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate would champion the cause of suicide prevention. And it is especially fitting that Walsh has introduced the legislation because Montana has long been a leader in upgrading suicide and PTSD screening for warriors returning from combat. Spurred to action by the suicide of a Montana guardsman who had returned home from Iraq combat, the Montana National Guard joined forces with mental health advocates and devised more thorough suicide risk screenings and outreach services to guardsmen and families. As head of the Montana National Guard, Walsh himself oversaw implementation of the Yellow Ribbon Campaign designed to connect guardsmen and families to mental health resources.

The proposed Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act would:

  • Improve access to care for troops and veterans by extending combat eligibility for Department of Veterans Affairs from five years to 15.
  • Review wrongful discharges. Troops who struggle with mental health issues have been discharged for behavior often caused by invisible injuries.
  • Repay medical school loans for psychiatrists who commit to long-term service in the VA.
  • Require annual review of suicide prevention programs within Department of Defense and the VA to ensure resources are effectively combating the problem.
  • Require the VA and DOD to ensure mental health care providers have special training to identify veterans at-risk for suicide.
  • Speed up the mandate to make all DOD and VA records electronic so the two departments can provide seamless care to warriors.
  • Require DOD and the VA to adopt the same drug formulary for prescription medication to ensure seamless care.

Five years ago, Montana suicide prevention strategies were incorporated in legislation that drew support from the entire state delegation when it was Max Baucus, Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg. Montana set higher standards that the entire U.S. military later adopted.

That same strong bipartisan support is needed to make suicide prevention strategies more comprehensive. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., already is a cosponsor of the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act. We call on Rep. Steve Daines to join in sponsoring and passing this important legislation.

As Walsh said last week: “It is our duty to come together for real solutions for our heroes.”