National Commander Seehafer to Congress: Be the One is ‘a mission’

During testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs, American Legion National Commander Daniel Seehafer delivered some of the organization’s areas of focus on its legislative agenda. (view the testimony here)

But once such item, Seehafer clarified, is more than just an item on an agenda: The American Legion’s Be the One mission to reduce veteran suicide.

“I’ve heard it described as a marketing campaign and cool slogan, to a catchy phrase and even a worthwhile initiative. None of these words appropriately reflect what Be the One is to The American Legion,” Seehafer told members of Congress. “It’s a mission, our mission, to change lives and save lives. There is no single deed that The American Legion can accomplish that outweighs the prevention of a veteran from taking their own life. Nothing.”

Seehafer noted there are instances that show Be the One is working in preventing suicide. He shared the story of California Legionnaire and suicide survivor Jeff Freeman, who shared at a Be the One event last year that “The Legion saved my life.”

“That’s what Be the One is,” Seehafer said. “It’s our mission to be the one to save one.”

Doing so, Seehafer said, means “destigmatizing the issue of mental health. Veterans value courage, and it takes courage to ask for help. However, The American Legion does not sit back and wait. Instead, we take a pro-active approach and ask veterans if they are OK. That’s the Buddy Check.”

Seehafer thanked Congress for passing legislation that directed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct its own national Buddy Check Week, which took place last October.

“Without a doubt, it made an impact,” Seehafer said. “Personal contact changes lives, and personal contact saves lives.”

Seehafer shared some chilling facts: that more veterans have died by suicide since 9/11 than those who died serving in the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War and the Global War on Terrorism combined; and that a veteran is 50 percent more likely to take his or her life than a person who has never served in the military.

To assist the Legion’s efforts, Seehafer urged Congress to:

·         Enhance the military experience by supporting quality-of-life legislation expanding access to affordable childcare, increasing funding for barracks and family housing, and ensuring timely access to mental healthcare.

·         Improve oversight of military sexual trauma claims, and ensure that both VA and the Department of Defense provide timely, meaningful and sensitive treatment for those who have experienced it.

·         Expand research and access to alternative treatments and therapies. He noted the National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that in 2021, approximately 2.8 million veterans experienced an illicit drug or alcohol use disorder and 92.4 percent did not receive treatment. “We urge you to consider legislation that would effectively address TBI and PTSD,” Seehafer said.

Seehafer shared the success of a VA policy enacted in 2023 offering free emergency suicide prevention care in and outside the VA system. More than 49,000 veterans accessed this benefit, saving a projected $64 million in health-care costs.

He also shared another story, that of a veteran who came up to him during his visit to Tennessee and spoke of the trouble he’d had after leaving the military and was dealing with both a TBI and PTSD. Dealing with a variety of issues, he had considered ending his own life.  

After failing to find any assistance or sympathy, the veteran did try to kill himself. Somehow, the gun failed to fire twice.

The veteran ended up going to American Legion Post 172 in Georgia, where he was provided with that “caring embrace” and was connected “with the right people, which not only saved his home and family, but him,” Seehafer said. “Also, so this veteran would realize his purpose and relevance in life, he now leads his post as their commander. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we have Be the One.”

Shifting to other items on the Legion’s legislative agenda, Seehafer highlighted some of those:

·         “Criminally punishing companies that prey on veterans and their families is extremely important, as we see a constant barrage of advertisements from unaccredited actors who charge excessive fees for services on claims that should be provided at no cost.”

·         “Requiring all separating servicemembers to participate in a robust Transition Assistance Program, which would cover employment and business opportunities, educational resources, housing options, health benefits and other quality of life topics that can improve mental wellness and reduce suicide.”

·         “Ensuring that every branch of our military is paid in the event of a government shutdown. The last long shutdown caused a pay interruption for the U.S. Coast Guard. This should never happen again.”

Seehafer said that members of Congress have shown they unify when it comes to veterans’ issues, and that they have an opportunity to do that again through passage of a complete budget.

“Today, Russia is on the march, illegal crossings at our southern border remain high and veterans continue to fight the plague of suicide,” Seehafer said. “Any member of the military will tell you that you cannot move forward without a plan. You may win a fire fight, but you will not achieve your overall mission without a strategy.

“For the sake of veterans, their families, for all Americans, put partisan politics aside and give us your plan.”

After delivering his remarks, Seehafer and American Legion national leadership and staff answered questions by members of the committee. Those questions included:

·         House Committee Chairman Mike Bost asked what could be done to increase accountability within DoD to ensure servicemembers leaving the military are given the best possible transition assistance. “The TAP program is essential. We have the resources, but we’re not implementing and giving the time,” Seehafer said. “The resources are there. Let’s use them. Give our enlisted the time.”

·         Senate Committee Chairman Jon Tester asked if VA has included The American Legion in conversations about what the new presumptive conditions will be included in relation to toxic exposure during military service. “They do ask us for our input, and it feels like they’re really receiving it,” Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Director Tiffany Ellet said. “As far as I know, we’re working pretty well together.” Tester also asked if the Legion supported The GUARD Act, which would impose criminal penalties for unaccredited individuals and businesses who charge to file veterans benefits claims. “Without a doubt, we support that legislation,” Seehafer said. “It pains me to know that there are predators out there.”

·         House Committee Ranking Member Mark Takano asked if the Legion would support moving congressional oversight of the TAP program from the Armed Services committees to the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs. “We love this committee. We trust this committee,” American Legion Executive Director Chanin Nuntavong said. “We would support that.” Takano also asked about Legion support for The Guard and Reserve GI Bill Parity Act, which addresses disparities in educational benefits between veterans of the Guard and reserves, and those from the active-duty component. “This is near and dear to our hearts,” Seehafer said. “This leads to gainful employment. That’s what we want for our veterans.”

·         Senate Committee member Angus King asked if the Legion would be open to having its posts serve as safe storage facilities for the firearms of veterans who may be in crisis. “We would love to be able to partner with anyone, especially you, on this,” Seehafer said. “A lot of people don’t realize how many posts we have.”

·         House Committee member Chris Pappas asked what consequences have resulted in the failure to pass the Major Richard Star Act, which has Legion support and would allow combat-disabled uniformed services retirees with fewer than 20 years of creditable service to concurrently receive, without reduction, veterans' disability compensation and retired pay or combat-related special compensation. “We classify it in our circles as a tax, a veteran’s tax,” Seehafer said. “Is it their fault that somehow they get disabled, and now they’re penalized? It is wrong. When we talk about changing a life, passage of that bill would definitely change a life.”

·         Senate Committee member Richard Blumenthal thanked the Legion for its support of the PACT Act and asked for its support of the GUARD Act. Seehafer reiterated the Legion’s support for the legislation.

·         Senate Committee member Maggie Hassan asked how important it is that veterans now eligible for VA care and benefits under the PACT Act enroll in the health-care system. “(VA) is the center of care – not just adequate care, but the best,” Seehafer said, adding veterans he’s talked with during his travels reference VA care as “’top notch’. We will continue to get the word out: this is the place to go.”

·         House Committee member Delia Ramirez asked what a solution might be to prevent veterans from possible deportation before they become U.S. citizens. “We see this all the time. Veterans … are not aware they can apply for expedited citizenship,” Nuntavong said. “We need to take every opportunity to educate servicemembers about their responsibility to apply for the paperwork that needs to be to help expedite, provide education and make it part of the culture of … being a part of an organization to serve and honor the United States of America. We have to do a better job of helping those. Most of them don’t know that opportunity’s there.”

·         House Committee member Greg Landsman asked for Legion feedback on legislation that would create a pilot program to employ veterans in the agricultural, conservation and nutrition sectors. “Absolutely we believe in this,” National Veterans Employment & Education Commission Chairman Jay Bowen said. “Veterans … a lot of them are outdoorsman, and some of that is what drove them to go into the military. It’s just a natural migration for them when they get out to seek those types of careers. We certainly support that and would advocate for that.”