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Opinion Pieces

Save our soldiers from suicide surge

Memorial Day is a day to remember Americans who lost their lives on the battlefield in service to our great nation.
Memorial Day is a day to remember Americans who lost their lives on the battlefield in service to our great nation.

However, there are casualties of war that also occur after the battle, an alarming number who die by suicide. Each year over the past several years, more than 250 active duty service members have died by suicide. And, each day 22 veterans die by suicide.

This Memorial Day, let us remember the service and military accomplishments of all soldiers and veterans who have fallen — and reach out to all of our brave heroes and families to prevent suicide. We are now losing more of these heroes to suicide than we are losing to war.

I believe a sincere and significant commitment to supporting and honoring our troops and veterans will sharply reduce the suicide number. Earlier this month, I brought together a coalition of nonprofits, veterans service organizations and experts from James A. Haley VA Hospital and Bay Pines VA Medical Center to review local efforts, with a focus on the power of peer-to-peer help. Tampa Bay is a patriotic community and is fortunate to have passionate individuals and organizations who continue to find meaningful ways to assist our veterans.

We may not fully understand a soldier's heart and the great burden of their physical and emotional scars, but we do know that outcomes improve when veterans are connected to proper support and care. In fact, a study published in 2015 indicates that patients of the VA's Veterans Health Administration had a lower suicide rate than those who were not helped by VHA care.

More of this important data and information on effective suicide prevention initiatives will be tracked with the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, action I supported in Congress last year. It requires an annual evaluation of the military's mental health programs. The act also aims to make information on suicide prevention more easily available to veterans and it offers financial incentives to mental health professionals who work with veterans.

Locally, the coalition of nonprofits, mental health professionals and others in Tampa Bay actively dedicated to supporting our military members and their families and understanding their unique challenges is significant: Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, James A. Haley VA Hospital, Bay Pines VA Medical Center, MacDill Air Force Base, Hillsborough County Veterans Services, Pinellas County Veterans Services, USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, Veterans Counseling Veterans, Quantum Leap Farm, Tampa Crossroads Veterans Assistance Center, Franciscan Center as well as Gulf Coast Rehabilitation. Of course, my office can assist military members and their families with their VA claims or appeals and access the benefits they have earned.

We all agreed that we must build more awareness and make available more local support services. However, in my local roundtables, I am impressed at both the quality and the passion of the groups and our neighbors who work in this field.

The Haley VA Hospital has organized mental health summits in counties throughout the region; peer-to-peer counseling groups have found ways to rapidly respond to the warning signs of suicide using social media; and other groups are focused on alternative therapies, such as aquatics and hippotherapy.

Today we salute and remember all of the sacrifices of all of America's fallen heroes. We remember those who died in the heat of battle, as well as those who died far from the battle's roar. They all helped protect freedom at home and abroad, and a proud nation is eternally grateful.

If you or a veteran or military member you know needs help, please call the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Crisis Line at toll-free 1-800-273-8255 for confidential assistance.