(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) spoke on the Senate floor in response to a CBS News Special Report that revealed shocking new numbers on the amount of veterans who have committed suicide. Senator Murray was featured in the CBS report expressing her dismay at the findings and discussing her frustration with trying to get an accurate assessment on veterans' suicides from the Administration.
CBS News' five-month investigation into veteran suicides found that at least 120 Americans who served in the U.S. military killed themselves every week in 2005. That’s at least 6,256 veteran suicides in one year – a rate twice that of other Americans.
Senator Murray's full remarks on the Senate floor are below.
The CBS Report Should be a Wake-up Call
Mr. President, I want to take a few moments to talk about a subject that has tragically received too little attention, and that is the number of our veterans who take their own lives because our nation has failed them.
In a break-through report last night, CBS News revealed that far more veterans commit suicide than has previously been reported by the Defense Department and the VA. CBS found that in 2005, at least 6,256 veterans took their own lives – a rate twice that of other Americans.
And they found that veterans aged 20 to 24 – those most likely to have served during the War on Terror – are taking their own lives at rates estimated between 2 and 4 times higher than non-veterans in the same age group. CBS should be commended for pushing past the Administration’s stonewalling and digging to find these numbers. The Administration told the network that even the VA hadn’t counted the nationwide numbers.
Mr. President, these findings are sad, they’re horrifying, and they should be preventable.
And they are a reflection of something that many of my colleagues and I have said over and over. They reflect an Administration that has failed to plan, failed to own up to its responsibilities, and failed even to keep complete statistics on the impact of the war on its veterans. From inadequate funding to a lack of mental health professionals, to a failure to help service members make the transition from battlefield to home front the Administration has dropped the ball. The Defense Department and the VA in particular must own up to the true cost of the war and do a better job to ensure our heroes aren’t lost when they come home.
Mr. President, we in Congress are taking steps to better understand and care for the mental health wounds our troops experience. But we, too, HAVE to do more.
If these numbers that CBS is reporting don’t wake up America, nothing will. It’s time for all of us to wake up to the reality and consequences of this war. It’s time to wake up our neighbors, our communities, employers, and schools – and ask if we’re doing enough for a veteran. And it’s time to wake up the White House and demand better care for our heroes.
As I speak today, a generation of service members is slipping through the cracks because of our failure to provide for them. And that is shameful.
The Administration Has Ignored Veterans’ Mental Health Trauma
Mr. President, five years ago, when the President asked us to go to war in Iraq: He talked about weapons of mass destruction, e talked about al-Qaida, he talked about the mission to fight the war on terror.
But he never talked about policing a civil war, or the stress of living months without a break, constantly waiting for the next attack. And he has never talked about – in my opinion – taking care of those men and women – who have served us honorably – when they finally come home.
In the past, our service members were always given a rest, time to relax and regroup from battle. But we are waging this war with an all-volunteer military. Some are serving their second, third, fourth – and now even FIFTH – tours of duty. And they are stretched to the breaking point.
Too many sustain traumatic brain injuries. Too many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Fully one third of all service members will come home with a mental health condition. When they finally return, they struggle with memories of battle. In their nightmares, they see their friends being blown apart. Some turn to drugs or alcohol to numb themselves from the pain. And the sad truth is that too often, the system we have set up to provide care doesn’t help them, and we don’t find out how much pain they were in until it’s too late.
Mr. President, I’ve talked to these service members and their families, and I’ve heard their stories. I want to share a few with you to illustrate why we must take action. These are young men and young men and women in their early 20’s – young men and women who have served our country.
They are someone’s son, brother, and best friend. That we are losing them is shameful.
Stories of heartbreak
The first is Justin Bailey. Justin joined the Marines when he was 18 – just a few months after graduating from high school.
Justin was about to separate from the Marines in 2003, when his service was involuntarily extended for the war in Iraq.
Justin was injured, and he returned home in pain and suffering from PTSD. He underwent several surgeries and – over two years – was prescribed a slew of medications – including hydrocone, xanax and methadone – and he became addicted.
Justin slipped through the cracks.
Despite seeking help for addiction, he was allowed to self-medicate. Despite warnings from the FDA, he was prescribed drugs that were inconsistent with treatment of PTSD.
Justin sought help. But after six weeks in a VA program for addicts with PTSD, he never once saw a psychiatrist. Justin’s parents had assumed he would get proper supervision in the VA program. But he didn’t. And this January, he took too many pills, and died of an overdose soon after.
The next is Joshua Omvig. Josh was an eager soldier who dreamed of being a police officer. He insisted on graduating from high school early so he could join the military and begin his career. He was sent to Iraq. But after one visit home, his parents could see he was shaken. Ordinary things made him nervous, and he was having nightmares that made him shout out in his sleep.
When he completed his tour of duty, he was transitioned back into civilian life after only a few weeks. And his parents saw he just wasn’t the same. Josh didn’t say much about Iraq, but he talked about hearing voices and seeing faces, and he was still jittery.
His parents wanted him to get care, but he refused to see a doctor for fear it would hurt his career. Despite his parents’ efforts to help him, Josh couldn’t get over the trauma he experienced in Iraq. It got worse, and his world slowly unraveled.
Mr. President, Josh took his own life at age 22.
Why Didn’t We Prepare for This?
Mr. President, Josh and Justin’s stories came to light because their families sought help from Congress.
We passed the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act this year because his family pushed and pushed for legislation that would require the military and the VA to better understand and treat the psychological trauma our service members experience.
Are these extreme examples? Maybe. But they aren’t isolated examples. And the reality is that many, many others slip un-noticed through the cracks. And it would be one thing if we had no idea what the mental health strains are for veterans. But that’s not the case. We’ve seen service members come home with mental wounds in every military conflict.
Mr. President, when I was a college student, I volunteered at the Seattle VA. I was assigned to the psychiatric ward, and I worked with Vietnam veterans who had seen horrors, you and I, and most of us here could never imagine. M. President, our understanding of the impact that warfare has on the minds of service members has evolved.
But one thing we know is that the mental wounds our men and women in uniform suffer from can be just as devastating as their physical injuries. So it is long past time that the military knocked down the stigma associated with mental health care, provided the care veterans desperately need – and deserve – and backed it up with adequate funding. We must acknowledge that this is a cost of war we cannot ignore.
What Can We Do?
So Mr. President, what can we do to prevent more stories like Josh and Justin’s? We have to better understand the trauma our troops are experiencing. The Joshua Omvig Act takes steps to do that, but we have to do more. We need more mental health clinics and providers.
We also need the VA to be proactive and reach out to veterans who aren’t enrolled in the VA system and are at risk for suicide. We have to provide the money to fully fund their care.
The Senate has passed a bill that would increase funding for veterans by almost $4 billion over the President’s request. I hope we can get those improvements to our veterans as quickly as possible. And we have to provide a seamless transition for our service members when they return home – and that starts with making sure that veterans can get their disability benefits without having to fight through the system. It is unconscionable that our heroes return from the battlefield, only to have to fight a bureaucracy to get the benefits they were promised.
Mr. President, Veterans Day was last weekend, and many of us went home and took part in ceremonies to thank our service members for securing our safety and our freedom.
In my own speech in Kitsap County, Washington, I said that I believe Veterans Day shouldn’t just be a day for ceremonies. It should be a day to consider: whether there is something more we can do for our veterans – and what the implications are of not doing enough.
As the CBS News report found, too often, the implications are that many veterans are stretched to the breaking point. And that is a tragedy. We have to wake up to the reality that we have already lost too many.
Mr. President, ours is a great nation. No matter how you feel about this current conflict, our troops are serving honorably. But we owe them so much more than we have given them so far.
We can do better.
We MUST do better.