Coffman: The twin crisis of veterans' mental health and suicide

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Washington, DC, February 8, 2016 | comments

Column by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman

In April 1991, I returned home from serving as a light armored infantry officer with the U.S. Marine Corps in the first Gulf War. The unit was the first battalion to engage Iraqi forces inside of Kuwait. We did so for three days prior to the main ground attack on Feb. 24, 1991.

For us, the stress of being on the front lines waiting for combat turned out to be worse than the actual combat phase itself because the Iraqi army had been severely degraded in a punishing bombing campaign that preceded the ground attack.

While preparing to go home after the war ended, I attended an out-briefing by Navy psychologists about some of the psychological challenges that we would likely face. What I remember most was his warning that we had become members of a highly interdependent ground combat team that had been together for months and that after we were separated and alone for the first time, we were likely to experience depression.

Many troops used to the stresses of combat and the interdependent bonds of their fellow soldiers have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life and come home feeling isolated and alone. In fact, many find themselves needing help that too often just isn't there.

It is absolutely vital that we as a nation address the twin crisis of veteran suicide and mental health issues.

Today, thousands of servicemen and women and recent military veterans have seen combat. Many have seen their buddies killed or witnessed death up close. Many have also been wounded and had to endure extended and frequently painful and difficult recoveries. These are types of events that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other types of mental illness.

Perhaps even more troubling, according to the VA's 2012 Suicide Data Report, there are 22 veteran suicides per day, totaling a staggering 8,000 per year. Units that saw particularly rough deployments, like the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, which saw intense combat in Afghanistan, have proven particularly hard hit. The battalion's veterans have a suicide rate 14 times higher than that for all Americans.The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts nearly 31 percent of Vietnam veteran; as many as 10 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans; 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan; and 20 percent of Iraq war veterans.

It's essential that when our men and women in uniform return to the civilian world and need to reach out for help, somebody reaches back.

This month, I will introduce two bipartisan bills to improve access to mental health services for our veterans, specifically those men and women with diagnosed PTSD who are improperly separated from service with a less-than honorable discharge.

Often, PTSD symptoms lead to the discharge of service members, which can disqualify them for subsequent VA benefits if they receive anything other than an honorable discharge. Since 2001, more than 100,000 men and women have left the military with a less-than-honorable discharge.

My legislation is a bipartisan effort with Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and others that would permit Veterans Affairs to provide an initial mental health assessment and emergency mental health care counseling and services for veterans with other-than-honorable discharges who are currently not eligible for services.

The complimentary bill seeks to overhaul the discharge review board appellate process, which would allow veterans with inappropriate discharges to "upgrade" their discharge status if there is a showing of PTSD.

I'm honored to work closely with Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., on this effort, my congressional colleague who is also a champion on the issue of veterans' mental health.

These pieces of legislation are important steps to care for our veterans. We owe it to our nation's veterans to address this crisis.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He is a Marine Corps combat veteran with service in both the first Gulf War and the Iraq War. 

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