President Dwight D. Eisenhower, hero of the Second World War and Kansas' favorite son, established Veterans Day in 1954 to allow "a grateful nation (to) pay appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this Nation."
As the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs and secretary of the Army, we seek to fulfill Eisenhower's vision as we support the needs of our military and veterans. This Veterans Day, we are particularly mindful of vets dealing with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the past eight months, some have suffered unimaginable loss and others significant hardship, but one thing we have all experienced is the feeling of isolation.
Thanking someone you know, or even complete strangers, for their service on Veterans Day is an American tradition, but this year will be different. Veterans Day parades are canceled, gatherings at local veterans halls are discouraged, and schools will not host vets for assemblies. The vet handing out red poppy pins for donations to the local veteran service organization might instead spend this Veterans Day alone. Unfortunately, this portrait of a lonely veteran is more common than we might think.
The statistics on veteran suicide are chilling. As of 2017, an average of 20 veterans and service members die by suicide every day. This represents a 7% increase in the rate of suicide among veterans in just over a decade. Some reports indicate that suicides among service members have increased as much as 20% this year, when compared to previous years.
Let's put those numbers into perspective: Every day, we lose nearly the same number of veterans and service members to suicide as we did soldiers to enemy action during Operation Gothic Serpent, the mission made famous by the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." Every week, veteran and service member suicides are equivalent to the number of soldiers that constituted the original "Easy Company," memorialized in the HBO series "Band of Brothers." Moreover, every month, we lose more veterans and service members to suicide than we did in our worst year of fighting in Afghanistan.
The stress of the unknown has been felt at every level in the U.S. Army; from the newest recruits on their way to basic training to the highest levels of leadership. Just because American soldiers can carry the weight, doesn't mean that it isn't heavy. This year has strengthened the Army's resolve to take rapid, positive and meaningful steps to safeguard every American soldier by listening, learning and taking action.
Army leaders are developing deep, interpersonal connections at every level so they better know their teammates. When those connections exist, someone will likely know if a teammate is struggling. To assist our leaders and frontline soldiers, we are fielding better leader visibility tools and new awareness materials. These initiatives are integral to equip leaders at all levels with creative, effective tools for building resilient soldiers and cohesive teams.
There is no single explanation for suicide, but the loss of even one veteran or soldier to suicide is too great.
This past year, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee made significant strides for veterans with an aggressive agenda, including the passage of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. This landmark veteran mental health care legislation, signed into law last month, will improve care and services for our veterans and bolster outreach by establishing a grant program for community organizations already serving vets across the country.
It will also direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to pioneer new research on mental health to better diagnose and treat our vets; improve rural veterans' access to life-saving mental health care through a telehealth expansion; and will hold the VA accountable for its mental health care and suicide prevention efforts.
This Veterans Day, we challenge you to help us make certain veterans across our county do not feel alone. This pandemic continues to impact the mental and physical health of communities across the country, and our veterans depend on us to reach out and provide support during this challenging time.
Americans have battled fiercer enemies before, but the military community can confirm that it takes all of us to win.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or ideations, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255, and then press 1, or via text at 838255.
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