Senate Hearing Focuses on Veterans Suicides: Vermont Witness Testifies on Outreach Program

WASHINGTON, March 20 – A Senate panel today examined Department of Veterans Affairs efforts to provide mental health counseling for veterans who are committing suicides at a rate of more than 8,000 a year.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has made progress, but is short of its own goal set last year to hire 1,600 clinicians by June 30. As of March 13, the VA had hired 1,105 clinicians.

“I want to commend VA for the strides it has made,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “However, I am very concerned that VA has hired only 47 clinicians in the last two months. Clearly the VA must step up the pace of hiring if it intends to meet its goal of 1,600 new clinicians by the end of June of this year.  In order to meet this goal, VA will need to hire almost 500 clinicians in the next two months.  Frankly, I don’t see how this is possible, and I want to know what the VA is going to do about it.”  

Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the head of the Veterans Health Administration, told Sanders that the VA would streamline its hiring process to meet the June 30 goal. “We know our work to improve the delivery of mental health care to veterans will never be truly finished, but we are confident that we are building a more accessible system that will be responsive to the needs of our veterans,” he testified. Petzel told Sanders the VA is treating 119,000 service members from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for post-traumatic stress disorder.

In other testimony at the hearing, Andre Wing of South Burlington, Vt., told the committee about a successful outreach program in Vermont, where fellow veterans go to the homes of service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. “One of the reasons the Vermont Veterans Outreach program has been so successful is our grassroots way of doing business.  We are the ones going to the veterans’ home and working with them to find what they really need. The issues range from health care, emotional support, disability benefits, homelessness, employment, or financial assistance,” said Wing, the outreach program’s team leader.

The veterans outreach program in Vermont was launched in 2007 with federal funds secured by Sanders. It has since been adopted in other states.

Other witnesses at today’s hearing spoke about their personal experiences.

Kim Ruocco is the national director of suicide education at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. “We have found at TAPS that peer-to-peer support plays a key role in helping traumatized families find healing and comfort,” said the widow of Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, who committed suicide seven years ago while awaiting a redeployment to Iraq. 

Jacob Wood served in Afghanistan with a Marine who took his own life after returning from the war. To instill a sense of purpose in returning veterans, Wood founded Team Rubicon, an organization which has used veterans’ military experience to aid victims of natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti.