September 10-14 is national Suicide Prevention Week, and the Army has declared September “Military Suicide Prevention Month.” They certainly need to do more to stop the dying. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 18 veterans kill themselves every day. Think about that for a second. Every day on average, we lose more servicemembers–current and former–to suicide than to enemy action. That’s outrageous and a national disgrace. That’s the bad news. The more promising news is that there is a servicemember counseling and referral service available that is saving lives every day. In fact, since this program went live in 2005, no servicemember who has used this service has taken his or her life.
If you’re wondering, “That’s great, but why haven’t I heard of it?”, it’s because the Defense Department–which does provide a significant amount of funding for the program–has failed to promote it aggressively. More on that in a moment. First, let’s talk about the program.
It’s called Vets4Warriors and its based at the University of Medicine and Dentitstry in New Jersey. It started out in 2005 as a New Jersey-only program under the name “Vet2Vet”, and it focused on the state’s Guard and Reserve members. The strength of the program lies in its counselors–every one of them is a veteran. Every time a vetran calls the number or seeks an online chat, he or she will be talking with someone who also has served in uniform, often in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s that peer-to-peer connection that often provides the needed comfort factor for a servicemember or veteran to make the call…and all calls are strictly confidential. The service is available 24/7, year-round.
The 2010 Defense Department task force report on miltary suicide prevention specifically cited the Vet2Vet program for significantly reducing the threat of suicides among New Jersey Guard & Reserve members, but at that time the Department took no affirmative steps to engage the program’s services. Under pressure from Congress, the National Guard Bureau began a limited funding initiative for the program, but Secretary of Defense Panetta has yet to drop the hammer on the Pentagon bureaucracy and mandate that the program become the national suicide and counseling service of record for DoD.
The program was recently featured on the CBS Evening News, but you will find no mention of that on the Army’s own Suicide Prevention Month webpage. You also won’t find the telephone number (1-855-VET-TALK/1-855-838-8255). It’s not as if Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is ignorant of the problem; he issued new orders to address the skyrocketing suicide rate back in June.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help get the Pentagon to get with the program (no pun intended), the best immediate step is to call your Member of Congress (202-225-3121) and ask him or her to lean on Secretary Panetta to give the Vets4Warriors program the financial and institutional support it needs to help prevent our servicemembers and veterans from taking their own lives. We, as a nation, sent these men and women into battle. If we could find the money to send them off to war, there is no excuse not to find the money to take care of them after they’ve come home.