WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, delivered a floor speech today on the disturbing rise in suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans, and called on Congress to pass S. 2162, the Veterans' Mental Health and Other Care Improvements Act. S. 2162 passed the Senate unanimously, and is currently pending action in the House of Representatives.
Chairman Akaka's floor statement is pasted below. An audio version of the full speech is available here.
I speak today about the growing rate of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans.
For all that is being done to support our troops in battle, we must remember this truth: for many veterans, their battles do not end when they return from war. Instead, war returns home with them, and within them. They face an enemy that is hard to understand, and harder to defeat. Their wounds, and their enemy, are unseen. But the reality and the sometimes deadly consequences of these invisible wounds cannot be ignored.
I am deeply troubled by the latest information we have received from VA. The number of veterans lost to the enemy of suicide is rising. Suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans is at an all time high. The most recently recorded year, 2006, saw 113 Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans lost to suicide, almost as many as were lost in the years 2002 to 2005 combined. This is disturbing.
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are not the only ones suffering from service-related mental health injuries. Indeed, the number of veterans found to have service-connected PTSD is not just rising - it is rising several times faster than service-connected disabilities overall.
Nor are suicide and mental health only a matter of concern among discharged veterans. Recent news reports show that suicides among active-duty soldiers are positioned to reach an all-time high, exceeding last year's record number.
Much is being done to protect and heal veterans with mental health issues. VA has expanded mental health outreach. The Vet Centers, run largely for vets and by vets, offer a safe haven and readjustment counseling. And for those in desperate need, VA now operates a 24-hour suicide hotline. In the one year it has been operating, they have received tens of thousands of calls, and performed over a thousand rescues of veterans about to take their own lives.
Unfortunately, these efforts are not enough. Veterans are committing suicide at a higher rate than their civilian counterparts. A recent RAND study found that nearly three out of four veterans in need of mental health care receive inadequate care or no care at all. This cannot be acceptable to a nation intent on protecting those who wear its uniform.
More must be done in the days ahead, and not just by VA. This Congress took an important step by passing the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act. But in the final weeks of this Session, comprehensive veterans' mental health legislation is still waiting for a vote in the House. Through S. 2162, the Veterans' Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which passed the Senate with unanimous support, Congress can do more to prevent veteran suicide. Congress can strengthen veterans' mental health care, outreach, support for the homeless, services for families, and leverage community resources. I hope this critical legislation will become law before this Congress ends.
PTSD and other service-related invisible wounds are real injuries. They are also an enemy to veterans, to the families that support them, and to all Americans. It is not enough to bring our troops home - we must support them when the battle follows them home. It is unacceptable that veterans who come home safely later lose their lives to the enemy of suicide. We must do more to support those who have served us.