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Dallas Morning News: Vets need more than government programs



This op-ed originally appeared on the Dallas Morning News


Meaningful, local connections are the next piece of the vet support network.


It has been more than two decades since the War on Terror began, and in the years since, millions of veterans have been coping with the aftereffects of service, both physical and mental, the latter of which were exacerbated by the August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan.


Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than 3.3 million veterans have served in uniform. Recognizing the urgent need to provide aid and support to them after they separate from service, numerous nonprofits have emerged, and existing organizations have seen a substantial increase in donations and grants. Legislation and government agencies have created programs for transitioning veterans. Now, communities and corporations must step up to offer a support system for implementation.


More than 200,000 service members transition to civilian life each year. Thus, it is imperative that the Department of Veterans Affairs stand ready to deliver the health care and benefits they need. Legislators passed the MISSION Act (2018) and PACT Act (2022) to expand health care coverage and support for veterans. Programs like the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program and SkillBridge equip veterans to successfully transition to civilian life.


The VA’s budget alone reached a historic $325 billion request for 2024. But despite these vast resources, the veteran community still faces a staggering, stubborn problem with veteran suicide. This spring alone the veteran suicide hotline reached the highest-ever number of calls received.


About 17 veterans die by suicide every day. Since 2021, more than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide – a rate that is 57% higher than that of the national average. Disrupted or poor social connectedness has been found to contribute to suicidal thoughts. A Mission Roll Call poll found that 81% of veterans have never received support from a local community nonprofit, business or community provider.


A new program by USAA is looking to change that. The Face the Fight Initiative seeks to fill in the gaps in veteran support by providing a network of services through different corporations and agencies to raise awareness and support for veteran suicide prevention.


Last year, only 14% of U.S. charity money went toward “human services,” an umbrella encompassing many types of social services, including many veterans services. Without donations, legislation or even vocal support, veterans’ nonprofit organizations carry the burden of community holistic intervention with limited resources to local and national entities.


Suicide is a complicated problem to tackle. There’s no one reason we can point to and say, “This is why veterans are killing themselves,” and we obviously can’t go back and ask them what was on their mind at the moment of decision. But we have a pretty good idea of the risk factors. Acute financial stress, problems in a romantic relationship, substance abuse, mental health diagnosis, unemployment … the typical factors that would probably drive most civilians to the edge. So what’s different about the veteran experience that makes our community 1.5 times more likely to spiral?


Most veterans joined the military for a few reasons. They want to serve, of course, but free college, a steady paycheck, traveling the world, learning a new skill, or simply escaping a disadvantaged or dysfunctional background can all be powerful motivations. Regardless of their reasons, most will tell you they found something else: a sense of identity in a new family. It didn’t matter how long they served. Four years or 40, they joined a diverse group of men and women from around the country and became a team through some incredibly difficult experiences. Unfortunately, there is no uniform “exit strategy” for a transitioning veteran. For many, you get a few weeks of click-through power-point classes on how to prepare to transition back to the civilian world, and you’re on your own. Your community and sense of identity get ripped away from you very quickly.


This unique journey can be difficult, to say the least. In addition to trying to navigate the VA, a daunting task in and of itself, they have to find a job, find a place to live, perhaps deal with some service-related injuries, and most likely do all of this while trying to support their family.


Luckily, many local community organizations exist to ensure veterans are supported holistically. These holistic support services are equally as important as doctor’s appointments and disability benefits — and sometimes can have an even more significant impact in the day-to-day.


Meanwhile, many veterans may be dealing with an identity crisis. Who am I now? What do I stand for? Who do I serve anymore? Even with support from communities during transition and in the years afterward, these are questions the individual veteran has to answer for themselves.


In 2022, Mission Roll Call visited 11 geographically diverse, veteran-heavy communities across America, including Dallas. We polled veterans in these communities beforehand to ascertain how satisfied they were with VA outreach in their area. If there was a high approval rating, we wanted to know what they were doing well, and if not, what was missing. We were able to compare places like Dallas that had high approval ratings with places like Los Angeles that had low ones. On this tour, we spoke with more than 5,000 individual veterans.


The trend we discovered wasn’t surprising. In areas like Dallas, VA officials, nonprofits, and for-profit companies routinely left their facilities to interact with veterans in their communities. They had created a network of highly motivated individuals who would, for lack of a better term, hunt down veterans in need and connect them with the appropriate resources. Meaningful relationships among stakeholders were key.


A veteran has a financial problem and talks to a friend about it. That friend only knows one person who works with a non-profit organization, which wasn’t set up to help with financial issues, but they know an organization that can connect them and…boom! In a short time, the veteran’s problem is solved, and they also create meaningful relationships with like-minded people who help them find their way.


To give the best opportunity to prevent suicides, we have to ensure our veterans can effectively cope with the everyday, upstream stressors before they become a critical mass of despair. Local communities are crucial in connecting veterans to critical government services and holistic community support.


Mission Roll Call will continue to advocate for better suicide prevention policy at VA, but bureaucratic systems can go only so far. We can no longer sustain a reactionary support system and expect the problem to improve. Instead, we must prioritize donating locally where our money and relationships have the most impact. Veterans and their families have answered the call to serve. The lingering effects from military service demand Americans continue to step up and serve those who served us.


Cole Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, former policy adviser in the U.S. Senate and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and a combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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