Honor our Debt to Veterans

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Good Republicans have always stood for a strong national defense, and we have the greatest military the world has ever known. We owe a great debt to the patriotic men and women we ask to secure our freedom and defend our Constitution by serving in the Armed Forces, and we owe even more to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. And right now, Sen. Barrasso isn’t holding up our end of that sacred duty. If elected, I will.

Wyomingites know a thing or two about patriotism and liberty – we punch above our weight in defending our country, with 30% more veterans per capita than the average state. They’re a huge asset to us because they’re so well equipped to come home and continue to be leaders in their communities. I know this, which is why I have an Afghanistan vet on my senior staff. He wouldn’t stick around if I didn’t keep veterans issues at the top of my list.

First and foremost, we should make sure that veterans receive the welcome home they deserve after they hang up their uniform for the last time and transition to the civilian workforce. That means encouraging businesses to hire vets – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because they make great employees – they’re disciplined, have excellent leadership and teamwork skills, and know how to roll up their sleeves to get things done.

But we’ve always asked a lot from our fighting men and women, whether they served in the Korean War or Vietnam or Afghanistan and Iraq, or any of the other places we’re at war today. And that has taken a major toll. We’re lucky that we have so many of these great citizens in our communities, but we also need to honor our debt to them by providing the tools many need to heal the invisible wounds that war inflicts. That means better, faster access to healthcare in rural areas, improved support for mental health, and help dealing with the bureaucracy of the VA to make sure they get the benefits they earned. It also means standing together and speaking up about mental health issues to end veteran suicide and homelessness.

Mental health issues have become a national crisis for our veterans, not least because they’ve lost faith in the career politicians who send them off to wars they’d never fight in themselves, or let their kids fight in. Close to one in five returning service personnel experience some form of PTSD, and alcohol dependency is as high as one in three. Half our men and women that volunteered to risk their life for our country experience serious trauma in their personal life after they return, a similar number express difficulty returning to civilian life, and just under half of all veterans experience sudden outbursts of anger.

This has all been made more severe by the lack of access to adequate VA facilities in rural states like Wyoming, where our veterans face huge distances to receive basic treatment and evaluations; making the treatment of Medicaid funding all the more important in a rural state like ours, with limited access to VA facilities, leaving many veterans to rely on Medicaid for their healthcare.

As reported by the National Institute of Health, over 1.5 million of the veterans seen in our VA hospital system received a mental health diagnosis, a 31% increase since 2004. On a typical night in America, 107,000 veterans are homeless after having risked their life for our liberty.

Because our career political leaders in Congress failed to set clear objectives in Afghanistan, we’re now 17 years into the longest war in American history, with no winning strategy or end in sight. Vets are coming home to a country that seems to forget we’re at war and doesn’t understand the sacrifices they made. Tragically, every 65 minutes we lose a veteran to suicide. Today more of our men and women deployed overseas die by suicide than in combat.

We have a culture and system that is largely ignores the Injury No one Can See. Even though we’ve known PTSD to exist since the Civil War (where we called it “shell shock”) it was not until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association recognized it as a diagnosable disorder, even though it affects over a quarter of our veterans that have been seen by the VA system in just the last two years.

We also know the situation is getting worse, not better, and it has not received the attention of Senator Barrasso even though we have the 5th highest veteran population in the country. During the last few years, suicide rates increased by an estimated 18%, yet Wyomingites need only google “Barrasso + PTSD” or “Barrasso + Veteran + mental health” only to see how little he has done in this regard. And since 2011, the number of non-profit organizations that support mental health issues for veterans has been dropping.

In the current Department of Veterans Affairs budget, approved by our current senator, suicide prevention programs were granted a mere 5.8% increase – only a few points above the rate of inflation; and the program itself receives less than 2% of the total VA budget—even though we lose more service personnel to suicide than combat.

While there are many issues facing our veterans requiring urgent attention, one that has touched Wendy and me, and where together the two of us will focus our attention once in office, are providing much improved mental health services for veterans. We have learned throughout this campaign that too many of our servicemembers return with hidden scars that we don’t give them the tools to fix or manage.

Not only have we as a nation under-invested in mental health treatment, we have made it difficult to access. All of these issues are more severe in a state like Wyoming, where distances between facilities and healthcare providers often make treatment impractical or expensive, and our veterans are underserved or pay out of pocket because of poor geographic coverage.

The following areas will receive immediate attention from my senate office:

  • Increased funding for staffing of existing VA facilities, and incentives for psychiatrists and mental healthcare providers to work at VA facilities to adequately cover our rural population.

  • Funding for capital improvements to increase the capacity of in-patient and out-patient services at existing VA facilities and create expanded outpatient facilities in areas less accessible to Cheyenne and Sheridan.

  • Over half the 22 million veterans do not get coverage through the Veterans Affairs system for various reasons including geographic coverage. To address this, we need a government funded umbrella coverage of mental health, so that adequate coverage is available when employment-based insurance does not provide mental health coverage.

  • Create a Department of Veterans Affairs task force, with a 12-month mandate to produce to Congress a comprehensive blueprint for dealing with PTSD, anger management, substance abuse, homelessness, and other common mental health issues; as well as to update The Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act of 2015.

  • Renewed focus on rural health. In the most recently proposed budget, $250 million was allocated to expand rural health projects – this works out to only ½ of one-percent of the total VA budget! We need a senator that understands the special needs of rural healthcare.

While I recognize there are other pressing issues facing our veterans, Wendy and I believe that some issues require focus and a champion. While we are devoted to honoring our commitment to veterans in general, and will work to deliver on that promise, addressing the mental health issues of veterans will be a priority for myself and Wendy.