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Former troops storm Capitol Hill to fight suicides by veterans

In Iraq, Lauren Augustine operated unmanned aircraft on surveillance and reconnaissance missions for the Army's storied 1st Infantry Division.

In Washington last week, Augustine and her fellow veterans stormed Capitol Hill for comrades they say are being left behind.

The 26-year-old Army veteran was one of more than 30 former service members who spent the week visiting lawmakers to call attention to the persistence of suicide among veterans.

In a time of fiscal constraint, when the Pentagon is shrinking the military and other departments are reining in spending, the veterans are asking Congress and the White House to devote more resources to mental health for former troops.

"Taking care of veterans is part of the total cost of war," Augustine, a legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said between meetings last week. "Congress sent this generation to war. It's time that they take care of this generation."

The Department of Veterans Affairs has worked to confront suicide among veterans, particularly those who have served since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In recent years, the department has hired more clinicians, expanded mental health services and added crisis hot lines.

"VA's highest priority is the mental health and well-being of the brave men and women who have served our nation. Even one suicide is one too many," Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said in September. "VA is a leader in providing high-quality mental health care that improves and saves veterans' lives. We know that treatment works, and there is hope for veterans who seek mental health care."

Suicide rates fell sharply among male veterans ages 35 to 64 during the first decade of the 21st century, the department reported in January. But the rates climbed among female veterans and younger males.

The overall rate has remained constant at about 22 suicides per day.

"Suicide among military personnel and veterans presents the most serious challenge to VA, the Department of Defense and the nation," William A. Thien, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the House and Senate committees on veterans affairs at a joint hearing this month.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has made suicide prevention its top priority for 2014, deployed 32 former service members, representing all branches, in groups of four — named Team Alpha, Team Bravo, etc. — to legislative offices, the White House and the Pentagon for its annual Storm the Hill lobbying blitz.

They're asking Congress to fund more mental health providers, more care and more access to it. They want an evaluation of what works and what doesn't. And they want President Barack Obama to appoint an official to focus on the issue.

"Caring for the men and women who have defended freedom is a solemn responsibility that belongs to policymakers, business leaders and citizens alike," Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the House and Senate veterans affairs committees this month. "Our warriors continue fighting different types of battles long after our wars are over, and we must continue our fight for them and their families."

Rieckhoff's association wants the government to fill 1,000 mental health care positions now open, to ensure that troops receive seamless care as they leave military service and become veterans and to increase mental health care eligibility for combat vets from five years after discharge to at least 15 years.

They have an important ally in retired Brig. Gen. John Walsh, who was appointed to the Senate last month to succeed Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.

As advocates planted more than 1,800 flags Thursday on the National Mall to commemorate veterans who have committed suicide this year, Walsh introduced legislation that would advance many of their goals.

The measure would extend eligibility for mental health care from five to 15 years, mandate an annual review of care programs within the Defense Department and VA to ensure that they are effective and direct the two departments to adopt the same drug formulary and make all records electronic.

It would also repay medical school loans for psychiatrists who commit to long-term service to the VA, ensure that Defense Department and VA health care workers are trained to identify veterans at risk for suicide and set up a review process for potentially wrongful discharges.

Walsh, a former commander of the Montana National Guard, is the first Iraq War veteran to serve in the Senate.

"We're leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone," Walsh said. "Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives."

Augustine, who was discharged from the Army in 2012, said veterans often don't know that mental health services are available, or that they are eligible.

In her case, she said, there were times that she could have used help but was concerned that it would jeopardize her security clearance.

"We know that getting help helps," she said. "And it's important that veterans understand that. Getting help is really powerful, and it's OK.

"That's something not a lot of people hear. And they should."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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