Focusing on the Invisible Wounds of War

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‘Author’s note: U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, held an oversight hearing today on veteran suicide and mental health issues. Akaka, who has championed a number of veterans’ mental health and suicide-prevention bills which are now law, sought to hear from veterans and VA leadership on the implementation of these measures. PTSD and other mental health issues are major wounds of the current conflicts. Veterans in Hawaii and across the nation count on VA to receive treatment and care for service-related mental health issues. Over 1,700 veterans in Hawaii receive disability compensation for service-related mental health issues. From fiscal year 2002 to the fourth quarter of 2009, VA facilities in Hawaii identified 911 veterans of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom with PTSD. Here are his floor remarks’

Today we will address mental health issues confronting veterans, with a particular emphasis on the risk of suicide. These are grave and troubling matters that I fear are becoming more prevalent as we send servicemembers into combat zones on repeated occasions.

When we send men and women in uniform into battle, we seek to provide them with equipment to protect them from the physical dangers. Too often, however, we do not provide sufficient protection and preparation for the equally serious mental dangers they will face. Mental illnesses prevalent among today’s veterans include PTSD, depression, and substance use disorders. Unfortunately, many of those suffering from such disorders do not seek proper help.

The rising rate of suicide among these men and women is especially heart breaking. The best information available suggests that about 18 veterans kill themselves every day. In December 2009, the Army reported 17 suicides of active duty members. In January, the Army reported 27 confirmed or suspected suicides. These are very troubling and sobering numbers.

I mention these statistics to open a broader discourse on mental health care issues affecting veterans – and the need for focused and increased attention – to effectively address these matters. As a nation at war, it is our responsibility to fully explore ways to help those suffering from mental health disorders, and to develop preventive measures to safeguard against the risk of suicide.

We have made a promise to care for the invisible wounds of veterans, and we must be vigilant in ensuring we keep that promise. This obligation is not limited just to the time after a veteran separates from the service. We must ensure we prepare deploying servicemembers for what they might experience, and make sure that resources are available during deployment to help them cope.

We must ensure that returning servicemembers are screened carefully, that those who need assistance are provided appropriate mental health care, and that all those leaving the military have a seamless transition to VA. It is also vitally important that family members be involved throughout these same periods.

As a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, and as Chairman of this Committee, I know that VA is a leader in providing mental health care and suicide prevention services. It is my strong hope that VA and DOD will work together to provide the best care to those in need. I continue to believe that it is very difficult to provide effective mental health care to someone still in active service. For that reason, I encourage VA and DOD to increase cooperation so that resources are used to their fullest potential and no veterans or servicemembers are overlooked or ignored.

We had a productive hearing on mental health issues in April 2007. That hearing contributed to the passage of mental health care legislation dedicated to Justin Bailey, a veteran who overdosed while receiving treatment from VA for PTSD and substance use disorder. I hope to learn about how VA is implementing the provisions of the Bailey bill.

VA has made great strides in improving the care and services available to veterans, but there is always more that can be done. I hope that our witnesses today can help us have a constructive discussion on what VA is currently doing, what VA can do better, and what VA needs to start doing. I look forward to hearing more about what the latest research is telling us, and how we can implement these findings to keep VA on the cutting edge of mental health care delivery.

While it is never possible to prevent all suicides in all cases, that must not stop us from trying. I thank the witnesses for being here this morning and look forward to their testimony.

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