Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie says Donald Trump is the first president in more than a century to recognize the "scourge of veteran suicide."
In an interview with conservative media outlet OANN this week, Wilkie said Trump is "the first president since the 1890s who recognized the scourge of veteran suicide."
On Thursday, though, Wilkie attempted to walk back or expound on his comments during the OANN interview on a call with reporters when asked for an explanation by Stars & Stripes, which first reported on his comments.
“This president has allowed me to present the two largest budgets in this department’s history,” he said. “No one has ever tackled suicide in a comprehensive way. That was the point that I was making -- that it was long overdue."
Wilkie made much of the President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) plan and report released last month, when Trump pledged to marshal "every resource to stop the crisis of veteran suicide." The PREVENTS report includes a national public health campaign, "safe storage" program for gun owners, community partnerships and improved research efforts.
The PREVENTS effort was met by criticism by some veterans, advocates and lawmakers who argued it did not go far enough.
Wilkie, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, headed up the task force in charge of crafting the plan and second lady Karen Pence and the surgeon general are set to lead the awareness campaign.
About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to VA data, which lawmakers and advocates have repeatedly called a "crisis." Those numbers have remained generally steady, or worsened, for years despite growing spending and programs. That data usually has a lag time of about two years, causing challenges in determining how effective efforts are at reaching veterans. But that doesn't mean there's been a lack of policy from previous administrations.
From 2005 to 2017, nearly 79,000 veterans died by suicide, according to the most recently available department data, more than the number of American troops killed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, which total about 65,000.
Veteran deaths by suicide also eclipse service member deaths in Afghanistan. In 2018, 6,143 veterans died by suicide and 22 troops died in Afghanistan that year. Veterans overall are about 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans, though women veterans face an even higher rate.
Trump has signed into law several efforts aimed at veteran suicide prevention -- most notably the VA Mission Act, which replaced the Choice Act, expanding veteran access to community health care. Trump also signed off on extensions for Choice -- the Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act -- originally signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015. The president often refers to his veteran related-accomplishments, including passing "choice" for vets.
Also in 2015, Obama signed into law legislation named for Texas Marine Clay Hunt who died by suicide at 28. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act established oversight at VA and created incentives aimed at expanding access to mental health care at the department and recruiting more mental healthcare staff. The Clay Hunt bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., when Wilkie was his senior advisor.
President George W. Bush in 2007 also signed into law a bill named for Iraq War veteran Joshua Omvig, who died by suicide in 2005 at 22. The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act.
Archives from President Bill Clinton's administration say during Clinton's tenure, VA "redoubled its efforts to provide quality mental health services" including special services for homeless veterans and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, landmark legislation prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, including those living with mental illness, though it was not specifically aimed at veterans.
Capitol Hill lawmakers have also floated dozens of suicide prevention proposals in recent years, though relatively few have made it to a president's desk to become law.
"Sometimes it takes a crisis to make game-changing innovation possible. Getting traction in preventing suicide will require new insights and an increased openness to promising approaches," said Shauna Springer, chief psychologist at the Stella Center and military trauma and transition expert. Springer has spent years helping veterans connect with each other in an effort to prevent suicide organically through community and connection.
"Combining biological approaches like Stellate Ganglion Block and high-quality psychological care has been life-changing – in many cases, lifesaving, for many of my veteran patients, friends and contacts."