President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday aiming to stem the number of suicides among veterans by creating a high-level task force to develop research strategies and plans to tackle the problem and provide grants for communities to help former troops who are struggling.
Calling suicide among veterans "a tragedy of staggering proportions," Trump said the problem can be solved only if the entire country works together.
"To every veteran, I want you to know an entire nation of more than 300 million people is behind you. You will never, ever be forgotten. We are with you all the way," he said.
The task force will develop a "public health road map" that will include a national research strategy for studying suicide risk factors and intervention efforts, as well as proposals for equipping states and communities with the resources needed to undertake suicide prevention and quality-of-life initiatives for former service members.
The order, known as the President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or PREVENTS, also seeks to network national and local programs to actively engage veterans "rather than a passive system wherein the onus for engagement is placed on veterans."
According to Department of Veterans Affairs data, an average 20 veterans die each day by suicide, and vets have a suicide rate 1.5 times greater than non-veterans. About 70 percent of veterans who die by suicide are not enrolled in VA care, officials said.
During the signing ceremony, Frank Larkin, a former Navy SEAL who served as the U.S. Senate sergeant of arms from 2015 to 2018, urged that the research on suicide prevention extend beyond behavioral health and address other possible causes, such as blast injuries and traumatic brain injury.
Larkin's son, Ryan Larkin, died April 23, 2017, by suicide. He had a microscopic brain injury known as interface astroglial scarring, which affected his cognitive processes. As with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease that affects some professional football, hockey players and veterans, it can only be detected post-mortem.
Addressing the research, Frank Larkin said that the nation needs a "Manhattan-like Project."
"We need the science to illuminate the path forward. I'm convinced we can solve this. ... We need collaboration, integration of data, unity of effort ... a holistic approach with a heightened sense of urgency to push the scientific research," Larkin said.
During past administrations and the previous Congress, lawmakers and members of the executive branch have focused on suicide prevention efforts, yet rates among veterans have remained steady or increased.
Last year, Trump signed an executive order to ensure that transitioning service members have access to counseling and mental health services during the first year after they leave service -- a period during which they face a higher risk for suicide.
At least two bills have been introduced in this Congress to improve the VA's suicide prevention and national oversight efforts, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday plans to hold a round table on suicide prevention efforts, awareness and treatment.
The suicide rate among veterans ages 18 to 34 rose more than 10 percent from 2015 to 2016; the rate of suicides among this population is roughly 45 deaths per 100,000 veterans. By contrast, the rate among civilian males ages 25 to 34 is 26 per 100,000.
At the signing ceremony, Thomas Winkle, director of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, said that proactive outreach by collective communities works. Winkle said that when Arizona faced one of the highest rates of suicide among its National Guard troops, the state's VA medical centers, the Arizona Department of Veterans Services, health care groups, the community and the National Guard came together to address the issue.
According to Winkle, the effort caused the suicide rate to drop to zero.
"It can be done. We have the ability to prevent suicides to make lives more empowered, to make lives have more meaning," he said.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie noted that last week, two doctors and a hospital technician "risked their lives" to save a veteran with a gun at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center. Two of the VA employees were wounded, but the veteran survived. Since 2017, he added, 243 veterans at VA facilities have been saved by employees. But, he added, and it has been reported, 19 veterans have died.
"That is what today's ceremony is about. It's about pulling together the resources of our federal government, our states, or localities, our charities, our nongovernmental organizations and coming together with a road map" to prevent suicide, Wilkie said.
Veterans service organizations have made curbing suicides a top priority. In testimony before the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees last week and this week, they have called for more funding for suicide prevention and mental health treatment.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has made suicide part of its "Big Six" agenda it hopes to see addressed this Congress.
If you are a veteran in crisis, the Veteran Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255, press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255 or at veteranscrisisline.net.
-- Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct Ryan Larkin's diagnosis. He had interface astroglial scarring.