Veterans service organizations, representing millions of former U.S. troops of every generation, gathered together on Capitol Hill Wednesday to urge Congress to take action to prevent more suicide deaths, care for increasing veterans ill and dying of toxic exposure and traumatic brain injuries and provide equal care for a growing number of women veterans.
One after another, leaders of Wounded Warrior Project, Blinded Veterans Association, Jewish War Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, AMVETS and more -- many of them veterans themselves -- appealed to lawmakers to ensure veterans receive the care and support they earned through service.
WWP CEO Michael Linnington asked lawmakers at a joint hearing of House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees to approve more funds for suicide prevention programs in the communities where veterans live and work and enhance research capabilities for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries to prevent suicide.
More than 83 percent of Wounded Warriors report experiencing PTSD and more than one-third of Wounded Warriors say they’ve thought about suicide within two weeks, Linnington said. About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to VA.
Linnington said a suite of WWP programs help veterans reconnect with one another.
"Isolation," he said, "is a killer."
Some VSO leaders were visibly frustrated by a lack of progress.
AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown said Congress and VA need to look to new and different mental health approaches, calling the current system “horribly broken.”
“How are we ever going to get a handle on this problem if we are spending more than 90 percent of our resources on approaches that fail?” she said, adding that AMVETS recommends Congress funnel any and all increases in VA’s mental health budget to “alternative, novel and non-pharmacological approaches” such as recreational therapy and yoga or community providers and programs. “We need to stop doing the same actions and expecting fewer deaths.”
We want to help the VA create a culture that proactively seeks out lonely, homeless, family-less, disaffected veterans and brings them in from the cold,” VVA National President John Rowan said.
Toxic exposures have affected U.S. service members for generations, and last year Congress made some progress in providing benefits to more Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. But there’s more work to do for those aging veterans, along with veterans of more recent conflicts such as Operations Desert Storm and Shield and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially burn pits.
“The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs maintain that any ill effects from exposure to burn pits is temporary and will pass once the military member is removed from the area,” JWV National Commander Harvey Weiner said. “However, these denials have a familiar ring to them in the minds of the Vietnam veterans and their issues with the military’s denial of any ill effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides.”
“VA more often than not put up roadblocks to veterans suffering with illnesses (from burn pits),” Rowan said. “It was deja vu all over again. This is wrong … Toxic exposures can be ... as deadly ... as piercing wounds from bullets and bombs.”
Linngton asked Congress to make lifesaving treatment for toxic exposure-related illnesses a new priority group at VA, develop a strategy for VA and the Pentagon to work together to update its exposure records and find high-risk vets, ensure veterans can access their own exposure records and more.
Weiner, along with other VSO leaders, called on Congress to order VA to extend Agent Orange benefits to cover additional diseases linked to the toxic herbicide that VA has so far resisted.
Veterans also fear how their exposures could be passed to their children, Rowan said.
“We fear the epigenetic impact of our exposures on those we love the most,” he said.
TBIs have repeatedly been referred to as the invisible wounds of war, but the number of veterans with these brain injuries is growing. Nearly 40 percent of Wounded Warriors said they had a TBI during service.
VSO leaders appealed to Congress to require VA to provide fully supportive programs and resources for those veterans and ensure the injuries are tracked, documented, treated and researched.
Thomas Zampieri of BVA, said that TBIs, which affected more than 413,000 veterans over the last 19 years, “can have significant impact on vision -- even when there is no injury to the eye” and about 75 percent of veterans who had a TBI also experienced vision issues.
“VA continues to see increased enrollment of this generation with various eye and vision disorders resulting from complications of frequent blast-related injuries,” he said. “PTSD and TBI can have considerable impact on quality of life and daily functioning, and if left untreated, both are risk factors that may increase the likelihood of suicidal ideation, planning, and attempt,” Linnington warned, adding that TBI patients are at increased risk for homelessness, incarceration and institutionalization, “all of which are unacceptable outcomes.”
Women are the fastest-growing demographic among veterans and more than 44 percent of women Wounded Warriors say they experienced military sexual trauma during service, and according to the Defense Department, that number is growing. One in four women veterans at VA also screen positive for MST.
“Those who live with MST in their past have experienced the ultimate betrayal by a fellow service member,” Linnington said. “They deserve easy access to high quality, gender-sensitive care furnished by VA.”
VSO leaders asked Congress to support existing programs and services to provide compassionate and comprehensive care to MST survivors. To help women veterans access VA care, advocates asked Congress to instruct VA to extend its hours and expand and make permanent a pilot program to provide childcare to veterans who have appointments -- since women veterans are more likely to be single parents or the primary caregiver.
In particular, advocates called for an increase in staff at VA medical centers who are qualified to treat women’s specific needs, especially in light of reports that some VA health systems have gone years without that staff.
“There are many improvements to be made at VA to make women veterans feel welcomed and safe,” Brown said.
Brown also referenced the alleged sexual assault of a woman veteran and senior congressional policy advisor at the Washington, D.C. VA hospital and the controversy surrounding how that case was handled, which she called “a victim-blaming fiasco.”