Preventing suicide, caring for veterans top VA secretary’s objectives
American Legion member Casey Nash illustrates the organization’s commitment to its Be the One mission, as VA Secretary Denis McDonough pointed out.
Nash is the 1st district commander in the Department of Georgia. She earned combat action badges and received a Purple Heart after deploying several times post 9/11.
She is also a survivor of a suicide attempt. Her experience led her to “Be the One” to give back to others, including creating an awareness event last fall aimed at reducing the rate of veteran suicide.
“Casey credits the community she discovered through The American Legion with helping her recover, with helping her find a sense of purpose again, with helping her live,” McDonough said in his speech to American Legion Family members during its 63rd Washington Conference on Feb. 28. “Today, she’s building that community for dozens of other veterans in her area, sharing stories and supporting one another in the moments when it matters the most.”
The secretary embraced the Legion as a partner in pursuing the same goals: reducing the rate of veteran suicide, providing the highest standard of health care for veterans and more.
“We all have to be there for veterans when it matters most, especially in times of crisis,” he said. “Two years ago, we failed a veteran — Major Ian Fishback — because we didn’t carefully coordinate our response to his needs across federal, state and county systems.”
That experience prompted a year-long project among VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, VISN 10 and Michigan state authorities.
“We’re better positioned to ensure that a vet isn’t responsible for managing complex governmental bureaucracies,” he said. “We’re responsible. We have to do that, for all veterans.”
Outlining five steps to quell the suicide rate, McDonough said, “Vets need and deserve suicide prevention solutions that meet them where they are, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The steps are:
• VA’s daybreak challenge to build out proven new solutions developed by Americans in communities across the country. “These investments will help develop innovations that will save veterans’ lives.”
• Staff Sgt. Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grants are driving resources to local suicide prevention services.
• As part of Suicide Prevention 2.0, VA is recruiting, hiring and training more than 100 licensed mental health providers serving veterans at high risk of suicide.
• The expansion of coverage through the COMPACT Act, which is connecting VA to new veterans who may have never used VA resources previously. “You have my commitment that we ensure that veterans receive the suicide crisis care they need when and where they need it without ever having to worry about receiving a bill.”
• The hiring of over 1,300 peer support specialists who “use their personal experiences with their own recovery to help struggling fellow veterans reconnect, find a sense of belonging, and access resources at VA and in their communities.”
McDonough credited The American Legion for its role in addressing the problem.
“Vets helping vets, long after they take off the uniform. There’s nothing better than that. There’s nothing more effective than that. And there’s no one who does that better than The American Legion.
“But suicide prevention takes all of us ... pulling together in the same direction to save lives. And with all this work, and more, saving lives is exactly what we’re going to do. And, together, we will do it.”
The secretary embraced the Legion’s commitment to providing the highest standard of health care for veterans.
“Together we can solve problems with full transparency,” he said. “We are proud of our accomplishments. But we are going to be candid about our failings — candid with ourselves, with you, with veterans and with the American people. We still can, and still must, be better — and do better — for the veterans we serve.”
Veterans had more than 73 million outpatient appointments at VA in the past year, McDonough said. Additionally, there were 37 million more outpatient appointments with community care providers. Since 2020, the number of virtual visits has surpassed 23 million, an increase of 3,000%.
McDonough also pointed to another Legionnaire, Chris Earl, the founder of Regiment Gaming. The community — at 20,000 strong, the largest in the nation — is for veterans, active-duty military and their families. It engages younger veterans and helps to connect them with VA resources.
“Chris teamed up with The American Legion, collaborating in a few different ways, including wildly successful online gaming tournaments for veterans,” McDonough noted. “In this community, veterans started asking each other questions about how to use the VA for care and benefits. The camaraderie they built over video game competitions has turned into trust, and a willingness to ask tough, personal questions from virtual friends living on opposite sides of the country.”
McDonough noted the importance for VA in connecting with younger veterans. While VA’s satisfaction surveys are mostly positive, younger veterans as a group don’t trust VA as much as their older comrades.
“It’s exactly the kind of mutually supportive veteran community The American Legion built 100 years ago, redesigned for the digital age,” the secretary said. “It helps build trust in VA where we need it most – with younger vets who may be suspicious of VA – or heard horror stories of wait times and bureaucracy at VA. Together – the Legion and VA – can build the responsive claims process vets deserve, because I know we at VA still have a lot of work to do to meet our responsibility to veterans today.”
The claims process, in fact, set a record last year with 1.7 million claims reaching decisions. However, “we’re on pace to break that record this year,” McDonough said.
Since the PACT Act became law last August, the overall number of claims filed has surged to more than 1 million, a 24% increase year over year.
Thus far, there have been more than 103,000 awards granted for toxic exposure claims. McDonough encouraged veterans to take these steps:
1. Enroll, if you are not already, part of VA.
2. Apply for toxic exposure benefits and care right now. By applying before Aug. 10, the benefits will be backdated to Aug. 10 of last year, when the bill was signed into law.
3. Get a toxic exposure screening at your VA medical center. Nearly 2 million veterans already have.
4. Work with an American Legion service officer on your benefits. It’s a free service for all veterans.
5. Learn more about the PACT Act by visiting VA.gov/PACT or calling (800) 698-2411.