WASHINGTON — The first soldier to return from the Iraq war and become a U.S. senator proposed a bill March 27 to combat veteran suicides and joined an emerging veterans group in recognizing those who have taken their own lives this year.
Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., speaking at an Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association event on the National Mall, introduced legislation to address the growing epidemic with changes at the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
The bill would extend veteran eligibility for the VA health system to 15 years instead of the current five-year window, in addition to providing funds to repay school loans for psychiatrists who sign on for long-term service with the department. It would also require the military to review discharge cases involving soldiers who were removed from service for behaviors relating to post-traumatic stress.
The latter provision would help veterans such as Kristofer Goldsmith, who left the Army under a general discharge because he tried to overdose on pain pills and vodka after participating in more than 300 combat missions in Iraq. He’s been trying to upgrade to an honorable discharge to qualify for the full slate of veterans benefits, which would include mental-health services and financial assistance for school.
“It’s been a cruel and inhumane process,” Goldsmith said of his efforts to change his standing with the Army. “I was improperly diagnosed, improperly cared for and improperly discharged.”
A VA study released last year found that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day, but less than one-quarter are enrolled in the agency’s health-care system. On March 27, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association members planted 1,892 American flags on the Mall to represent veterans who already committed suicide so far this year based on the VA calculation.
The actions on Thursday came as part of the group’s “Storm the Hill” initiative, which involves lobbying political leaders and Obama administration officials to enact changes to prevent veteran suicides.
Walsh, who led an infantry battalion in Iraq as a member of the Montana National Guard, said one of his corporals committed suicide after returning from combat. He added many other soldiers from Montana killed themselves while he was head of the state’s Guard from 2008 until 2012.
“This is a personal issue for me,” Walsh said. “We’ve waited too long to take action on this issue. We need to work together to solve the problem.”
The senator is pushing for a hearing on his bill with the Senate Veterans Affairs and Armed Services committees. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was the measure’s only co-sponsor as of March 27.
Political leaders and Veterans Affairs have taken steps to address veteran suicides in recent years, in part by increasing funding for the department’s mental-health services by 61 percent since 2009. VA has asked to raise that amount by an additional 4.5 percent in 2015.
Since 2012, VA has brought in more than 2,400 additional mental-health professionals. It said it’s also provided treatment for 1.4 million veterans in 2013, compared with 900,000 in 2007.
“The health and well-being of the courageous men and women who have served in uniform is the highest priority for VA,” agency spokesman Josh Taylor said in a statement. “We have made strong progress, but we must do more.”