The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After delays, Trump rolls out ambitious plan to end veteran suicide

President Trump and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie in April. (Alex Brandon/AP)

President Trump on Wednesday unveiled a broad strategy to prevent veteran suicides, an epidemic that has remained stubbornly persistent over three administrations.

The 10-point road map includes an interagency effort that brings in advocacy groups and nonprofits for a holistic approach, according to the plan, and also aims to promote community-based suicide prevention programs.

Trump mandated the initiative in March 2019 with an executive order, but the planned release for March this year was delayed by the coronavirus crisis.

“Ending the tragedy of veteran suicide demands bold action at every level of society,” Trump said in an address at the White House, describing the crisis as a “grave tragedy.”

At least 20 veterans and service members die by suicide each day, according to a recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Second lady Karen Pence and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams have been tapped as ambassadors for the effort, which is called the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or PREVENTS.

While some factors of suicide are understood, like financial issues or exposure to trauma, other reasons and data points remain elusive, officials said in a Wednesday call with reports, and much of the effort will focus on data collection and analysis.

“There is so much we don’t know” about veteran suicide, a senior administration official said on the call with reporters. Trump echoed those remarks, saying “nobody quite understands” the problem.

Another thrust of the effort is collaboration with key veterans and military service organizations, which the Trump administration hopes will amplify resources and other information to veterans and family members, officials said.

But Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America advocacy group, criticized the roll-out, saying he did not receive word about it until Tuesday afternoon.

A lack of involvement with experts who have worked on veterans issues for years may have slowed down the process, Butler said. “This should have and could have been done in a fraction of the time,” he added.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said in a statement Wednesday that it was “disappointing” the plan was advanced with “limited input” from veterans groups and lawmakers.

“Tepid calls for more research, interagency coordination, and meek public education campaigns won’t do enough to end this crisis — we have much more substantial work to do to prevent veteran suicide and ultimately help save veterans’ lives,” Takano said.

Other administrations have focused on veteran suicide, but the Trump administration’s is the largest such push, said Chanin Nuntavong, executive director of the American Legion, the country’s largest veterans service group. The effort could help destigmatize conversation around mental health inside and outside the veteran community, he said.

“I’m glad this has become a national issue,” Nuntavong said.

Barbara Van Dahlen, a longtime veterans mental health advocate, was appointed to lead the task force last year.

Veteran suicide was also a problem for the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations following sustained combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions that have been the sites of counterterrorism missions.

While focus on newer veterans of mental health resources has been a fixture at VA, the agency has found that older veterans die by greater numbers. Veterans aged 55-74 had the highest number of suicides in 2017, more than any other demographic, according to a VA report released last year. Veterans aged 18-34 died by suicide at higher rates, the report found.

Another troubling aspect is the number of female veterans who die by suicide, which is 2.2 times as high as the rate among women who did not serve in the military, the 2019 report found. The rate among male veterans is 1.3 times as high as that among men who did not serve.

Trump’s plan notes the statistics but does not detail any specific plan to address female veteran suicide.

More than 70 percent of men and 43 percent of women used firearms in their suicides in 2017, the report found, outpacing non-veteran Americans in their use, with advocates pointing to veterans’ familiarity with guns as a troubling explanation.

Trump’s plan includes efforts to promote safe firearm storage and counseling.