On average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
To commemorate them and raise awareness, 32 veterans from the group flew to Washington, D.C., to plant 1,892 flags on the National Mall today, one for each of the veterans that the group says took his or her own life in 2014. IAVA extrapolated that number from a 2012 Veterans Administration report finding that 22 veterans took their lives each day in 2009 and 2010, only a slight increase from years past, and a number that includes all veterans, not just those who served in America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The event was part of IAVA’s 2014 Storm the Hill campaign, an annual week of action in which organization vets meet with lawmakers to push a veterans’ agenda picked for that year. In 2013, it was the Veterans Affairs benefits-claim backlog; this year, it’s veteran suicides.
“I know several individuals that have died by suicide,” Sara Poquette of Dallas, a video journalist who served in Iraq, said, adding that she herself considered suicide while experiencing the hardships of reintegrating into civilian life. “For me personally, it was more just getting through until I was really ready to get help, just realizing that my life was going down a path that I never really wanted it to go down.”
In Joining IAVA, Poquette said, she found a “new unit.”
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is pushing a bill, the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, which Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., plans to introduce. Walsh commanded a Montana National Guard battalion in Iraq.
“When we returned home, one of my young sergeants died by suicide, so this is very personal to me,” Walsh told reporters on the Mall today, calling veteran suicides “an epidemic we cannot allow to continue.”
The bill would extend eligibility for Veterans Administration health care, create a pilot program for student-loan repayment if health care professionals work for the VA, instigate a review of certain behavioral discharges, and mandate a review of mental health care programs at the VA, IAVA said.
The group is calling on Congress to pass the bill by Memorial Day.