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  • Cole Lyle

Veterans from the Afghan War need more mental health help

Thousands of veterans are taking their lives each year

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

August 30 marks the anniversary of the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. For the estimated 3 million veterans who served in the Global War on Terror, discussing the subject still evokes visceral anger. It is difficult for them to reconcile last year’s events with the noble missions they sought to serve.

Keeping Afghanistan free of terror networks and giving Afghans the opportunity to pick their national destiny free of oppressive Taliban rule were accomplishments that vanished in a few chaotic days. Adding moral insult to injury, we lost 13 brave service members and abandoned our Afghan allies, most of them interpreters, who fought alongside us over two decades, with estimates ranging from 76,000 to 160,000 still in the country today.

All of these things undoubtedly contributed to the results of a recent Mission Roll Call push poll, wherein 73% of veterans said the withdrawal negatively affects how they view America’s legacy in the War on Terror.

Right now, it is impossible to quantify the effects this has had on the veteran suicide rate. But based on my experiences intervening to help suicidal friends, it’d be easy betting on the negative, particularly considering the broader context. Since 2001, the Department of Veterans Affairs budget has grown by $253 billion, with special emphasis being placed on addressing the suicide epidemic. Yet, according to the VA’s own data, an estimated 6,205 veterans still take their lives every year, and frankly, that number is likely a low estimate considering the issues with data collection.

We can’t go back and ask them what their tipping point was, exactly. But data suggests that relationship struggles, unemployment, substance abuse, acute financial stress, lack of peer support and mental health play a large part. What has become abundantly clear is that the limited approach the VA takes by looking at suicide through the lens of mental health — primarily talk therapy and medication when a problem already exists — has not worked. Data and common sense confirm this. Without changing this approach, the problem will persist.

For those who have never served in the military, it can be difficult to comprehend the sheer magnitude of this problem. Outside of our sacred obligation to support our service members and veterans, why should it matter to them?

The short answer: Because veterans have a higher predisposition to serve and lead local communities, have access to education and job training that makes them great entrepreneurs or employees, and can bridge the partisan political divide plaguing this great country because they know how to work with people they disagree with towards a common goal.

But we’re losing them at an astonishing rate, and America cannot afford a continuation of this tragic status quo.

The anniversary of the Afghanistan withdrawal has been a reminder of the moral anguish sustained by veterans of the conflict, and our failure as a nation to ensure veterans across the country don’t succumb to the war within. We should take this opportunity to reexamine how we approach this issue. We have an obligation to do more. To engage and fund community organizations more aggressively and leverage their ability to outreach and coordinate care for the 50% of veterans that don’t use the VA. To get creative with preventive solutions like service dogs, mentoring programs and other holistic approaches.

Veterans need communities that care about their unique struggles and are motivated to catch them before they get to a crisis point, helping restore purpose and empowering them to utilize skills and benefits of their military service. The status quo has been a failure, and communities across the country cannot afford to maintain it.

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

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