It's estimated that 22 American veterans die by suicide every day. That's nearly one every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month. That's over 8,000 veterans every year.
And that number almost included Kris Goldsmith.
Kris is an Army veteran from Long Island, NY. He deployed to Iraq in 2005, where he went on more than 300 missions. Kris left the Army in 2007 with a "general discharge" after he attempted to take his own life. Kris' "less-than-honorable" discharge status made him ineligible for the GI Bill and was unemployable for two years. But thanks to strong support and personal courage, Kris made it through. And not only is he surviving, he's thriving. He is tackling the process of recovery from PTSD and attending Nassau Community College -- where he's president of the student veterans group. He's a survivor. And now he wants to save others.
Kris is one of 32 vets who came to Washington this week from across the country to advocate at IAVA's 10th Annual Storm the Hill. In past years, we fought for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, guaranteed funding for the VA in case of a government shutdown (which came in handy this past year), increased employment support, demanded better care for female veterans, and more.
Each year is historic. But this year, it's different. It seems more personal to everyone involved. That's because we're combating veteran suicide. We know it's not just about changing broken bureaucracies, it's about literally saving lives.
This week, Kris and our veteran leaders launched our most important initiative ever: We've Got Your Back: IAVA's Campaign to Combat Suicide. At over 125 meetings with Congress, the VA, the DoD and the White House, they're urging policymakers to adopt changes to bridge the gaps in care and break through the stigma that is too often associated with seeking help.
The campaign came from extensive research. Every year, we survey our membership about the most pressing issues facing the community. This year, mental health was their top concern. And 47% told us they knew an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who attempted suicide. This made it clear that combating suicide was our latest call to action.
So we created a set of guiding principles. We call it AC5. The A is Access (vets need access to quality care whenever they seek it). And the Cs are: Capacity (services must be able to meet demand), Care (vets deserve evidenced-based, high quality programs), Crisis (vets in crisis deserve proactive, effective support programs), Continuity: (no vet should fall in the cracks between programs and services), and Community (the public must be involved in encouraging vets to seek care).
With these in mind, we're calling on the president to sign a veteran suicide-focused Executive Order. It should announce a Call to Service to mental health providers, name a National Director of Suicide Prevention, and review and upgrade wrongful discharges for vets erroneously discharged (and now ineligible for services and benefits). In our meeting with the White House this week we told them that as well.
And we're calling on Congress to quickly support and pass the historic and comprehensive Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans (SAV) Act. IAVA will be standing with Senator John Walsh (D-MT), one of two combat veterans in the Senate, Thursday morning as he announces historic, comprehensive legislation at our National Day of Action.
In addition to passing this legislation, we've also identified three things that Congress and the VA can do right now to combat suicide. Firstly, they can fill the 1,000 mental health care jobs that are open on USAJobs. We know that getting vets immediate counseling works to stop suicide, so let's fill these jobs. Another thing they can do is increase mental health care eligibility for combat vets from 5 years from discharge to at least 15 years. We know that some invisible wounds of war can take time to emerge, or that it can take time for veterans to recognize that they need help. This change will get vets treatment when they actually need help, not leave them outside the system. Finally, they can ensure that veterans receive immediate and seamless care in the VA upon discharge. Too many vets are being left in limbo because of a basic lack of communication.
But Washington can't do it alone. Our veterans need the public to support these principles and get involved at the local level. We need America to show us that they really have our back.
They need to do it for Kris. And for the 22 veterans that we tragically lose every day.
Tomorrow, young veterans are planting 1,892 American flags on the National Mall. One for every single veteran that has died by suicide so far this year. Kris will be there too. And he hopes America will hear his story and take action to prevent it from happening to anyone else.
After 13 years of war, it's the least our nation can do to honor his service and that of millions like him.
Learn more and get involved at StormtheHill.org.