The House approved an amendment to next year’s defense spending bill Wednesday night that shifts $10 million from training Afghan security forces to fighting suicide in the ranks of the U.S. military.
“This is the most recent issue of Time magazine, reporting that military and veteran suicide is a tragic epidemic that has only gotten worse,” Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, said on the House floor, using a blown-up copy of the cover by Nancy Gibbs and me as a prop. “We are losing too many of our heroes,” said Boswell, a 20-year Army veteran. “It’s up to us to act.”
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., was a co-sponsor of the amendment. “This week’s Time magazine, as you see from that front page, describes military suicides as an epidemic,” McDermott said. “I would like to take $10 million out of a $5 billion fund in this amendment to go beyond the funding for existing suicide prevention services, and toward modifying the culture that keeps some from seeking help. We must also note that any progress in suicide prevention will be fleeting if we don’t focus on reducing the stigma associated with seeking psychological health services among our active-duty people.”
I believe the Pentagon can do more to eradicate barriers to mental health care. This means ensuring that mental health and substance abuse issues are treated as medical issues and are taken out of the realm of personnel matters. This means ensuring that seeking and receiving psychological health care does nothing to jeopardize a soldier’s security clearance or prospects in his future career.
I would also urge the Pentagon to ensure that a portion of this money goes toward hiring, development and retention of top-tier psychological health talent for our military at this time. It is the tale of cost of this war that nobody calculates when we go to war. What do we do when the people come home? We forget them. We think they should pull themselves together and go back to their regular life. And many of them can’t do it without some help. We need to provide it. They become desperate, figure there’s no hope and take their own life. That shouldn’t happen to a 24-year-old kid, man or woman, who has been in Afghanistan or Iraq giving to our country what we ask from them. Their willingness to risk the whole business of going to war has to be dealt with when they come home.
Other lawmakers joined in support including Rep. Bill Young, the Florida Republican who chairs the defense appropriations subcommittee. He said he has “opposed similar amendments in the past because of the source of the funding, the defense-wide O&M accounts which we just really cannot afford to cut into our readiness accounts.” But he approved of Boswell’s measure because it reduced funding for the Afghan – instead of the U.S. – military (apparently suicide doesn’t hurt readiness).
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the ranking member of the subcommittee, also voiced support. “This is a tragedy when more people are dying from suicide than are in combat,” he said. “I know the Army has tried. General [Peter] Chiarelli [the Army’s former No. 2 officer and chief suicide-fighter until his retirement in January] made an enormous effort to try to find the answers, and it’s a serious, difficult problem. And a lot of it relies on trying to deal with these people before they go over so that you can find the ones that are going to be susceptible or have problems going in. It’s just a very difficult problem.”
The House approved the measure by voice vote; the Senate also has to agree before the plus-up in suicide-prevention funds becomes law.