As we commemorate our honored fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, I ask my fellow New Yorkers to take note of the roughly 20 veterans who commit suicide every day. The mental-health issues many of our veterans face is a serious problem that must be addressed.
Fortunately, there are ways to improve this immediately. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t have taken this long.
We got a stark reminder of this on May 18.
A man was sitting in his car just before noon, ready to go for a drive because he needed to clear his head. He started the engine, all the while trying to fight off the loud voices clamoring in his brain. His mind spiraled out of control, he did a U-turn and slammed his car into a crowd of people in Times Square. He killed a young woman and injured 22 others.
This man is a US Navy veteran. This man has a mental illness. This man is not alone.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2014 an average of 20 veterans committed suicide each day, shining a light on only the most visible group of vets suffering from mental illness. Of those 20, only six were users of VA services. Veterans who are dishonorably discharged or who make too much money wouldn’t be eligible for counseling.
A Government Accountability Office study published this month showed that 60 percent of troops who have been discharged for misconduct in recent years suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other type of brain injury.
In addition, there are thousands of veterans with active duty, National Guard and Military Reserve service who were honorably, or less-than-honorably, discharged from the military who don’t get the mental-health counseling they need because the eligibility requirements and the VA health system’s complex bureaucracy put such treatment too far out of their reach.
Overall, there are roughly 20.8 million veterans in the United States. Of those, 7 million are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration.
One of the main reasons for lack of enrollment is the high number of veterans who were dishonorably discharged, don’t qualify because of their income or served in other branches such as the reserves.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2014 an average of 20 veterans committed suicide each day.
The VA estimates 22,000 veterans with mental illnesses have received other-than-honorable discharges since 2009. They would all be ineligible for mental-health counseling through the VA.
That’s why I have introduced legislation that would provide free mental-health counseling to all United States military veterans. This bill would ensure that any veteran — whether they’re active duty, discharged honorably or dishonorably or served in the National Guard or in the Military Reserves — is given full access to the help and treatment they need.
But here’s the thing: The process of going through the bureaucracy of demonstrating mental illness to VA officials can dissuade even veterans who are currently eligible from seeking help.
Eliminating the discharge- and income-eligibility process will help all vets. It’ll increase the number of now-eligible vets getting care as well as speed up the process of getting treatment for everyone.
Many of us have seen a veteran who lost a limb or suffered a severe burn while fighting overseas. What none of us sees are the mental wounds that come with serving.
They don’t just vanish, they can’t be stitched back together and they can’t be easily explained to bureaucrats. They linger with our men and women through dark and lonely nights, where the only voices they hear are the ones from the battlefield.
This is a very real and serious epidemic we’re facing in our country. We have an obligation as a grateful nation to say “thank you” to our veterans by caring for each one of them, not just talking about it.
With Memorial Day here, let’s remember that parades, waving American flags and “saluting our troops” are all essential, but we also need to serve our living veterans when they are truly at their lowest moment.