Addressing veteran suicides

The unbearable strangeness of being first.

John Walsh, the newly appointed U.S. Senator from Montana, is the first Iraq War veteran to serve in America’s upper house. Today, the bronze star recipient sits with members who voted for the October 2002 Iraq War Resolution, but who never served in uniform.

Only 29 members of the Senate are veterans. In the mid-1970s, the number was upwards of 70. Shared sacrifice is an unrealized ideal.

On Thursday, Walsh, who was appointed in February to replace Sen. Max Baucus, introduced legislation to respond to the swelling number of veteran suicides. The tragedy of military suicides, while not a new phenomenon, is compounded by America’s longest war, Afghanistan, and multiple deployments.

“We’re leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone, and the crisis of veteran suicide now claims 22 of our finest men and women every single day,” Walsh said in a statement. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives. It is our duty to come together for real solutions for our heroes.”

Walsh’s bill, the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, is championed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The multi-pronged effort includes extending special combat eligibility from 5 to 15 years, improving access to care; reviewing wrongful discharges — often service members in country suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to general or dishonorable discharges; boost the number of mental-health professionals at the VA by underwriting medical-school loans for psychiatrists who commit to long-term service at the VA; require an annual review of mental health care and suicide-prevention programs within the Department of Defense and VA to ensure resources are being used effectively; streamline DOD and VA electronic records (quite a feat, if it can be pulled off); and establish common drug protocols between the VA and DOD.

The Walsh bill needs to pass. While the legislation mostly involves bureaucratic tinkering — and complaints about VA incompetence date back decades — lawmakers still must do everything within their power to address war’s agonizing fallout.

In Phil Klay’s short story collection about Iraq, “Redeployment,” a narrator distills the trauma of combat. “The thinking comes later, when you have the time. See, it’s not a straight shot back, from war to the Jacksonville mall.”

For lawmakers, Iraq is a distant mirror; for veterans, it’s a soul-seared landscape, a memory embedded.

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