A True Salute to America Would Be Taking Immediate Action on Veteran Suicides | Opinion

There was much debate this month regarding President Trump's decision to change the nature of our nation's traditional Independence Day celebration in Washington, DC and instead host an exhibition featuring military hardware and personnel, and a speech by the Commander in Chief himself. In the days since the "Salute to America," President Trump stated, "Based on its tremendous success we're just making the decision—and I think we can say we've made the decision — to do it again next year, and maybe we can say for the foreseeable future."

My hope is that the President and his Administration will make the same dedication to ensuring that we, as a country, not only salute America and the country's military might, but also guarantee that the men and women that make up our forces are taken care of both during and after their service.

Unfortunately, America has a mixed record of doing so.

Twenty veterans a day die by suicide, and thousands of veterans suffer from the effects of burn pits and other toxic exposures. The federal government continues to delay basic research on the potential utilization of medical cannabis to treat the wounds of war such as PTSD and physical pain. Women veterans do not receive the same care and respect as their male colleagues, and the GI Bill—the benefit used to recruit many to join the ranks and that many have used to earn an education that they otherwise couldn't afford – remains under threat of cuts and attacks.

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"Americans always take care of each other. That love and unity held together the first pilgrims, it forged communities on the Great Plains, it inspired Clara Barton to found the Red Cross, and it keeps our nation thriving today," the president said during his 4th of July address.

Now the president needs to lead our nation's government, in conjunction with a rallying cry to all of America, to truly take care of our veterans. We have the plans and the resources to do so. We need the will, the leadership and the desire.

Addressing the veteran suicide epidemic requires a nationally-coordinated response. The White House issued an executive order in March of this year which correctly calls for an "aspirational, innovative, all-hands-on-deck approach to public health." But as we wait for the development and release of the roadmap, there is much that can and should be done now. Major bipartisan legislation—the Commander John Scott Hannon VA Mental Health Improvement Act—that begins to address much of what the president's executive order calls for and much more has been introduced by U.S. Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and John Boozman (R-AR) and has the strong support of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). Improving access to mental health care options is only one part of the whole health needs of the community.

Signed by President Trump last year, the directives of the bipartisan MISSION Act went into effect last month. Designed to improve veteran access to timely and quality health care by, among other items, streamlining access to care outside of the VA system, the MISSION Act received qualified support from veteran organizations, as many fear that it could result in unnecessary outsourcing of health care to the private sector at the expense of core VA capabilities. Time will tell, and IAVA will remain watchful with many of our partner Veteran Service Organizations, but more must be done to support the health care needs of our veteran community, especially after nearly two decades of war.

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Vietnam veterans were forced to fight for government recognition that contact with Agent Orange caused major health problems. Similarly, post-9/11 veterans are fighting to have the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs acknowledge that exposure to massive open-air burn pits, used for years on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to burn everything from plastics to human waste, are causing many of our service members and veterans to get sick and die—with little transparency into what they were exposed to and or recognition that their injuries are a direct result of being exposed to the airborne toxins while deployed. Of particular note, 82 percent of IAVA members report being exposed to burn pits while deployed, and 84 percent of those report experiencing health impacts.

On this issue as well, IAVA worked with Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Brian Mast (R-FL), and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK), to get bipartisan legislation introduced - the Burn Pits Accountability Act - to improve the science needed to treat exposed veterans and to ensure their exposures are recorded. The vocal support of the President, DOD and VA would get it approved.

Thirty-four states have legalized medicinal cannabis and an additional five legalized medicinal CBD oil. Over 80 percent of IAVA members believe that cannabis should be legal for medicinal purposes. Yet because cannabis use remains a federal crime, the VA is unable to prescribe it or ensure that, if a veteran obtains it via a legal state, it fits appropriately within that veterans overarching care plan. The IAVA-backed VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act by Sens. Tester and Sullivan, and Reps. Luis Correa (D-CA) and Clay Higgins (R-LA) would direct the VA to undertake a clinical trial of cannabis effects on treating chronic pain and PTSD - but the VA opposes this legislation and is not initiating any equally rigorous studies of its own.

Near the conclusion of the Independence Day "Salute to America", President Trump stated:

"As long as we stay true to our course, as long as we remember our great history, as long as we never ever stop fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do."

We call on the President, all levels of government, and every community, to keep that spirit alive and to not stop fighting for a better future for our veterans because he's right, there's nothing that America cannot do. And taking care of our veterans is something we must do.

Jeremy Butler is CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

If you have suicidal thoughts, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day.

A True Salute to America Would Be Taking Immediate Action on Veteran Suicides | Opinion | Opinion