On Wednesday May 29, Congressman Jack Bergman (R-MI), Congressman Jim Banks (R-IN), and Congressman Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr. (D-CA) sent Acting Secretary Shanahan (DoD) and Secretary Wilkie (VA) a bipartisan letter to express their serious concerns with the suicide epidemic affecting servicemembers and Veterans as well as to ask for clarity regarding the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) efforts to respond to this crisis. Reps. Cisneros, Banks, and Bergman are all Veterans that serve on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In their letter, the Representatives note, “In 2018, 321 active-duty servicemembers took their own lives, the highest number since 2012, and approximately 20 Veterans on average die by suicide each day,” despite the fact that many past DoD and VA programs to address and prevent suicide “have been in place and available for servicemembers and Veterans for some time, with billions spent to support them.” Therefore, questions remain as to the efficacy of such programs and the Representatives assert that “more must be done, particularly to ensure servicemembers and Veterans are aware of the services available to them.”
The Representatives also express concern surrounding the VA’s witnesses’ testimony which stated that “500,000 letters were sent out to Veterans with an other than honorable discharge to clarify their eligibility for care, but only 3,500 came into care.” That works out to a 0.7 percent response rate, a disparagingly low number.
Congressman Jack Bergman served in the United States Marine Corps for 40 years, as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and most recently as Commander of Marine Forces North/Marine Forces Reserve. He retired in 2009 at the rank of Lieutenant General. After being elected in November 2016, Bergman became the highest ranking combat Veteran ever elected to Congress
The full text of the letter can be found here and below:
May 29, 2019
The Honorable Patrick M. Shanahan
Acting Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301
The Honorable Robert Wilkie
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Acting Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Wilkie:
We write as veterans serving on both the House Armed Services Committee and House Veterans Affairs Committee to express our serious concerns with the suicide epidemic affecting servicemembers and veterans. As members uniquely positioned, we write to inquire about the degree to which your agencies are properly coordinating to proactively detect and treat suicide risk from the very first day of an individual’s military service.
We appreciate the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) participation in the May 21, 2019, joint hearing of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee and House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee on Military and Veteran Suicide, and your recognition of the scope of the problem and stated determination to address it.
The hearing testimony highlighted numerous programs and initiatives developed and implemented by DoD and VA to support and care for servicemembers and veterans. However, many of these programs have been in place and available for servicemembers and veterans for some time, with billions spent to support them, raising questions as to their efficacy.
In 2018, 321 active-duty servicemembers took their own lives, the highest number since 2012, and approximately 20 veterans on average die by suicide each day.
Clearly, more must be done, particularly to ensure servicemembers and veterans are aware of the services available to them. With that in mind, we request your response to the following questions:
1. How much do DoD and VA each spend on suicide prevention research?
2. Explain how DoD screens and evaluates active-duty servicemembers for susceptibility or risk factors for suicide prior to separation.
3. What are DoD and VA’s responsibilities for carrying out a “warm handover” of a servicemember from DoD to VA care?
4. We recognize that there are a number of servicemembers who do not self-report when in need of care. What are DoD and VA’s policies and plans for pro-actively engaging and seeking out non-reporters?
5. Are there any suicide prevention initiatives or programs that DoD has not undertaken because of cost?
6. The VA witness indicated that 500,000 letters were sent out to veterans with an other than honorable discharge to clarify their eligibility for care, but only 3,500 came into care. Why is that number so low and what can be done to increase the number of veterans in that group to enter care?
7. When asked what explains the increase in the number of suicides in 2018, both DoD and VA witnesses did not have an answer. What plans do each of your departments have to investigate the reasons for the increase in the number of suicides among servicemembers?
8. The DoD witness repeatedly mentioned the need to meet “patients where they’re at”—what is the Department doing to ensure they are meeting patients “where they’re at”?
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. We look forward to working with you to ensure we are properly caring for our military servicemembers, veterans, and their families.