Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Sen. John Walsh (D-MT), the first Iraq War combat veteran to serve in the United States Senate, and Tom Tarantino, Chief Policy Officer at IAVA and former Army officer, spoke to CNN about veteran suicides, the cost of war, and Walsh’s bill, the Suicide Prevention Act for American Veterans.
On mental health in the military, Walsh said to Crowley, “I think we do a very good job of taking that citizen solider and making a warrior out of him. But we aren’t doing a very good job of taking that warrior and reintegrating him back into society.”
A transcript and videos from the interview are available after the jump.
CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: Joining me now, Senator John Walsh, Democrat from Montana, and the first Iraq War combat veteran to serve in the United States Senate.
And Tom Tarantino, also a veteran from the Iraq War, currently working with the organization called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Gentlemen, thank you both for being here. We’re now seeing — and these are rough figures, as we all know — on average, 22 veterans a day successfully, um, takes his own life.
We have known these kinds of statistics for four or five years. The president has taken note of it. You know, hundreds — $100 million was put in just last year for awareness.
What else is needed here?
SEN. JOHN WALSH (D) MONTANA: Well, Candy, I’ve introduced a bill in the Senate, The Suicide Prevention Act for American Veterans, to try to solve this problem or do what we can to help out with this problem.
You know, it’s a seven point plan to try to focus on, uh, mostly the psychological health issue associated with, uh, suicide.
CROWLEY: I think the president, at one point, did say this is — you know, this is such a big problem with not a single answer.
If you could pinpoint one thing that you think would help, what would it be?
TOM TARANTINO, IAVA: Well, I mean this is actually really critical to understand about suicide and mental health. And suicide isn’t, in and of itself, a problem. It is the end result of 20 problems, of — of system of failures. And so one of the things the SAVE ACT does is increases access to care. And that’s a huge part you know, one of the things that we do know is that veterans who seek care often get better. And seeking care is one of the best things you can do, but when that care is either unavailable or it’s, you know, or you don’t live near a VA Hospital, it becomes that much more difficult.
TARANTINO: I always tell soldiers — and I’m an old Army guy, so I use the word soldier. But I say, look, if you get shot in the chest, you’re not going to walk around with a bullet wound in your chest. If you have an invisible injury, you shouldn’t walk around with it. You can get treatment, because treatment does help.
CROWLEY: And I was also struck by another figure, which is 69 percent of these veterans are over the age of 50, which tells me a lot of things. First of all, I — I think in — in society in general, uh, the suicide risk in 50 and over is higher. But it also tells me about the length of time it might take people to seek help.
WALSH: Exactly. And that’s one of the aspects of this bill, is right now, we take care of a soldier for five years after he gets out. I want to extend that to 15 years — or this bill wants to extend — we want to extend it to 15 years, because the — everybody is going to react different — differently to, uh, psychological issues.
CROWLEY: I know, uh, that you had a — were in command of a unit in Iraq. You lost a soldier to, um, suicide. I know that when you were, uh, in the National Guard in Montana, that again, you saw, uh, some in that unit commit suicide.Did anyone in the unit have any idea?
WALSH: You know, we didn’t. And that’s, you know, one of the issues here, that the — and especially in the reserve components of the National Guard. You know, we see these men two days a month. So we really have to — and if we don’t see it during that, those two days, if one of their fellow soldiers or airmen doesn’t see an issue pop up during those two days, we don’t see it.
So we have to rely on family members, employers, other people to, uh, to bring that to our attention.
CROWLEY: JAMA Psychiatry” had a study out recently where it said that one in 10 soldiers have a history of impulsive anger. and that that can, in turn, be triggered by and be made worse by the kind of stress that military life can be, particularly in combat.
So do you think that there ought to be greater mental health scrutiny when folks enlist?
WALSH: I believe there should be. You know, I think we do a pretty — a very good job of taking that citizen soldier and making a war — a warrior out of him. But we — we aren’t doing a very good job of taking that warrior and reintegrating him back into society.
And so I think before we, uh, bring young men and women into the military, just like we’ve given them a — a physical to check out, you know, that they’re physically capable to deal with the stresses of the military, we also should give them some psychological treatment to — or screenings, to see if they’re psychologically fit to serve in the military.
TARANTINO: This is something that we’re actually asking the president to do, uh, through an executive order, which is make mental health first aid part of what you teach service members before they go on deployment.
Uh, you know, they teach you all — some basic first aid, how to patch a sucking chest wound, how to run an IV. They should teach every service member how to identify these issues so not only can you fi — identify and treat someone, but it reduces the the stigma and it makes it just another wound.
CROWLEY: we hear, um, so often, you know, please say thank you if you see a military service member. I’ve been on planes where they’ll introduce members of the military that are there and everyone claps.
I’m not sure beyond clapping and saying thank you that if you’re just sitting at home watching this segment, you have any clue how you can possibly help, because America has made a promise to its veterans and I think most Americans seriously believe in that promise. But it doesn’t seem to be fulfilled.
TARANTINO: Well, I — first of all, be aware of the issues, uh, and take action when there are bills like the SAVE Act in the Senate and bills in the House that — that help service members and veterans, actually call your congressmen. I know it sounds a little cheesy and old-fashioned, but it really does work.
WALSH: Definitely. You know, I listen to my — listen to my constituents on a, you know, how I’m going to vote. I want to hear their input. And if there’s an issue that’s important to them, I want to hear about it I will bring these issues to the forefront while I’m serving in the United States Senate, because I know a — you know, with these men and women who serve in our military are willing to sacrifice their lives for our country. So I don’t think we can just end our responsibility to our veterans, whether it’s five years after they leave the military or 10 years, you know, they were willing to — to give their lives for us
So I think that we have to take care of them for a long — a very long time.
CROWLEY: In the end, is this maybe not a matter of will or popularity, but a question of money?
TARANTINO: God, I hope not. Um, I mean these are — these are men and women, as the senator said, who — who stood up to serve and they want to continue serving afterward. And a part of the cost of war, part of the cost of sending people to war, especially for 13 years, is making sure that the services and structures are in place to take care of their needs when they come home.
CROWLEY: But Senator, I’ve got to believe people have asked you, how much is this going to cost?
WALSH: And my answer is that, uh, this is the cost of war. You know, we spend billions of dollars making sure that our men and women are trained and equipped and ready to deploy, uh, to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever they’re stationed around the world.
So we should take that into account when they come home, as well, that we need to make sure that they’re ready to go back into society.
TARANTINO: And I’ll — and I’ll tell you, Candy, if 22 people were dying on the battlefield a day, like 22 veterans are dying by suicide a day, no one would be asking how much it costs, they’d be shipping weapons and military reinforcements there tomorrow.
CROWLEYdo you think this country — and by that, I mean our — our government, uh, is fulfilling its promise to veterans at the VA and up on Capitol Hill?
WALSH: I do not. You know, I think that our veterans need to — we need, um, better health care for our veterans. And, for example, in a state like Montana, we’ve built additional VA Clinics, because when you look at how rural Montana is, having to travel from Miles City, Montana to Helena, where the VA Is, is really, uh, unrealistic.
CROWLEY: Thomas, is the promise being kept?
TARANTINO: I — I think it’s getting better, but it’s not there. And this is why we need combat vets like Senator Walsh and Senator McCain and the 16 Iraq and Afghanistan vets in the House to really stand up and take charge of this issue to make sure that we are in a place where we are honoring service and sacrifice of this — these men and women.
CROWLEY: Tom Tarantino, IAVA, thank you so much.
Senator John Walsh, thank you, as well.
I imagine we’ll discuss this a little more in the future.
Thank you so much.
WALSH: Thank you, Candy.
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