Reps. Cisneros, Banks, and Bergman Send Acting Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Wilkie Bipartisan Letter on Servicemember and Veteran Suicide Crisis

May 30, 2019
Press Release

**Cisneros questions DoD and VA officials on identification and treatment of at risk veterans**

Watch Rep. Cisneros’ line of questioning regarding Military and Veteran Suicide here: (Link)

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, on Wednesday, May 29th, Congressman Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr. (D-CA), Congressman Jim Banks (R-IN), and Congressman Jack Bergman (R-MI) sent Acting Secretary Shanahan (DoD) and Secretary Wilkie (VA) a bipartisan letter to express their serious concerns with the suicide epidemic affecting servicemembers and veterans and to ask for clarity regarding the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) efforts to respond to this crisis. Reps. Cisneros, Banks, and Bergman are all veterans that  serve on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

In their letter, the Representatives note, “In 2018, 321 active-duty servicemembers took their own lives, the highest number since 2012, and approximately 20 veterans on average die by suicide each day,” despite the fact that many DoD and VA programs to address and prevent suicide “have been in place and available for servicemembers and veterans for some time, with billions spent to support them.” Therefore, questions remain as to the efficacy of such programs and the Representatives assert that “more must be done, particularly to ensure servicemembers and veterans are aware of the services available to them.”

The Representatives also express concern surrounding the VA’s witnesses’ testimony which stated that “500,000 letters were sent out to veterans with an other than honorable discharge to clarify their eligibility for care, but only 3,500 came into care.” That works out to a 0.7% response rate, a disparagingly low number.

Rep. Cisneros is a Navy veteran and currently serves on the House Armed Services Committee and House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He also co-sponsored and voted in support of H.R. 2326 – Navy Seal Chief Petty Officer William "Bill" Mulder (Ret.) Transition Improvement Act of 2019, and H.R. 2340 – FIGHT Veteran Suicide Act, legislation addressing the Veteran Suicide Crisis. 

The full text of the letter is can be found here and below:

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May 29, 2019

The Honorable Patrick M. Shanahan

Acting Secretary of Defense

1000 Defense Pentagon

Washington, DC 20301

 

The Honorable Robert Wilkie

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Ave NW

Washington, DC 20420

 

Dear Acting Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Wilkie:

We write as veterans serving on both the House Armed Services Committee and House Veterans Affairs Committee to express our serious concerns with the suicide epidemic affecting servicemembers and veterans. As members uniquely positioned, we write to inquire about the degree to which your agencies are properly coordinating to proactively detect and treat suicide risk from the very first day of an individual’s military service.

We appreciate the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) participation in the May 21, 2019, joint hearing of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee and House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee on Military and Veteran Suicide, and your recognition of the scope of the problem and stated determination to address it.

The hearing testimony highlighted numerous programs and initiatives developed and implemented by DoD and VA to support and care for servicemembers and veterans. However, many of these programs have been in place and available for servicemembers and veterans for some time, with billions spent to support them, raising questions as to their efficacy.

In 2018, 321 active-duty servicemembers took their own lives, the highest number since 2012, and approximately 20 veterans on average die by suicide each day.

Clearly, more must be done, particularly to ensure servicemembers and veterans are aware of the services available to them. With that in mind, we request your response to the following questions:

1. How much do DoD and VA each spend on suicide prevention research?

2. Explain how DoD screens and evaluates active-duty servicemembers for susceptibility or risk factors for suicide prior to separation.

3. What are DoD and VA’s responsibilities for carrying out a “warm handover” of a servicemember from DoD to VA care?

4. We recognize that there are a number of servicemembers who do not self-report when in need of care. What are DoD and VA’s policies and plans for pro-actively engaging and seeking out non-reporters?

5. Are there any suicide prevention initiatives or programs that DoD has not undertaken because of cost?

6. The VA witness indicated that 500,000 letters were sent out to veterans with an other than honorable discharge to clarify their eligibility for care, but only 3,500 came into care.  Why is that number so low and what can be done to increase the number of veterans in that group to enter care?

7. When asked what explains the increase in the number of suicides in 2018, both DoD and VA witnesses did not have an answer.  What plans do each of your departments have to investigate the reasons for the increase in the number of suicides among servicemembers?

8. The DoD witness repeatedly mentioned the need to meet “patients where they’re at”—what is the Department doing to ensure they are meeting patients “where they’re at”?

Thank you for your time and attention to this matter. We look forward to working with you to ensure we are properly caring for our military servicemembers, veterans, and their families.