By Bryan Kim
Every day, a startling 22 veterans commit suicide. The Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, or SAV, is an ambitious attempt to close key gaps in care for veterans that should be embraced by all sides. Unfortunately, many of the veterans who would be helped have not organized to get the attention of Washington.
Last week, I meet with Caridad Sanchez, district director at Sen. Barbara Boxer‘s San Diego office, to present over 100 signatures and four audio testimonials in favor of SAV, which was drafted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and is supported by my organization, Moderate Majority.
As I introduced myself and organization, Sanchez took notes and showed great interest and concern for the issue. But she surprised me when she said no other group had yet brought SAV to her attention. Given that nine Senators are co-sponsoring the bill, and it is supported by an overwhelming number of American veterans, it was surprising that veterans organizations in San Diego had not yet reached out to Boxer’s office.
As our discussion continued, it only reinforced my belief that people need to organize in order to make real change. Sanchez described the difficulties she’d had in navigating the generation gap in opinion between older and younger veterans. She seemed stymied by what she perceives to be the immense disparity between the two and expressed sincere frustration at an inability to locate any representatives of female veteran groups. It is as though, without some kind of organized representation, the popular will that exists on the ground for immediate action on veterans mental health isn’t real or tangible enough to take action,
The issue is, of course, close to home for the senator: Sanchez reminded me that Boxer’s husband is a Vietnam veteran himself. And just last week, Boxer helped pass the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act — a major win for improving benefit access times and Veterans Administration accountability. That bill will help millions of veterans across the country and is an important step in the right direction.
However, there are still key gaps in veteran care that need to be addressed. SAV would help close some of the biggest by:
• Providing for electronic integration of Defense Department and VA records. While it is great that veterans currently experiencing VA appointment delays now have the ability to go to private doctors, many will still experience difficulties and delays in obtaining their medical records — sometimes critical to proving that their injuries and medical needs are service-related.
• Hiring of over 1,000 new mental health professionals at VA hospitals across the country. This move will directly help combat post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and suicide issues specifically. It will also employ and empower a new generation of mental health professionals by paying their student debt in return for an employment commitment to the VA.
• Providing for the review of potentially punitive discharges. Many older veterans received Other Than Honorable discharges because of incidents directly related to undiagnosed mental health conditions triggered or induced their service. Consequently, many standard and important benefits are not available to them. Soldiers who were discharged with an OTH for incidents related to their psychological wounds would be allowed to present their case for upgrading their discharge status.
Sanchez told me that SAV was something that, “ordinarily,” the senator would likely have no problem supporting. But she was very frank in stating that she could not guarantee the senator’s support because of the “current political climate” and extreme scrutiny surrounding veterans’ issues. She stressed several times having to coordinate with the Washington office to determine how the bill fit “into the larger political landscape.” It was clear that she and the senator had not received enough vocal public support in the bill’s favor. Lacking that or additional perspectives from representatives from other groups, it was unclear how long it will be until action can be taken.
This situation can present difficulties for legislators and their staffers, but offers an important insight for citizen activists who hope to make change. By choosing to rely on organizations and their support for legislation, politicians run the risk of missing out on discourse with disadvantaged groups who lack the capital base or social cohesion to organize lobbying and advocacy groups. Just because there is not a black women’s veteran organization, or a union of homeless veterans located in San Diego, does not make their contribution to the discourse — or their political need — any less valuable or important.
In order to be heard, we must unite and organize so that the true weight of our opinions can be felt, from the grassroots up.
Bryan Kim is CEO of the Moderate Majority, an independent grassroots coalition based in San Diego that is working to put an end to political partisanship.
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