Editorial notebook: Our attention can’t wane on mental health needs of veterans and soldiers

Last Thursday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a veterans group planted 1,892 American flags, one for every veteran who has committed suicide this year. You probably didn’t see much about it.

On Wednesday at Fort Hood in Texas, a soldier who had sought psychological treatment killed three people before shooting himself in the head. You couldn’t escape the coverage.

It’s how our culture and the news business often works. I understand that it can take a tragedy to rediscover a crisis such as the mental health of our active-duty troops and veterans, including the appallingly high number who are taking their own lives.

But that doesn’t lessen the disappointment and frustration. What we need, what we owe to those who have served, is persistent attention and practical action.

That’s also the message that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is trying to send.

Its leaders worry that the rampant speculation that Army Spc. Ivan Lopez’s psychological problems were to blame for the deaths will be distorted into the incorrect view that post-traumatic stress causes violence.

Instead, the focus should be on the fact that many soldiers and veterans are not getting the mental health care they need, Tom Tarantino, IAVA’s chief policy officer, told me Friday.

This year, IAVA expanded to California its rapid-response referral program ( to help vets cut through red tape and get mental health and other services.

Last week, capping off its 10th annual “Storm the Hill” lobbying effort, Sen. John Walsh of Montana, the first Iraq war combat vet to serve in the Senate, introduced the most comprehensive bill yet to reduce veteran suicides.

Crafted by IAVA, the measure ( S. 2182) would require the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure mental health providers have special training to identify those at risk for suicide. It would increase the number of psychiatrists by repaying student loans of those who go to work at the VA. The legislation would also extend eligibility to enroll in VA health care from five to 15 years after leaving the military, and try to improve care during that transition with electronic medical records and the same prescription drug formulas.

Last August, President Barack Obama called for ending an “epidemic of suicide among our veterans and troops.” While the Pentagon and even the much-maligned VA have stepped up their efforts, the bill is an opportunity to make substantially more progress.

IAVA – the largest group advocating for post-9/11 veterans with more than 270,000 members – is demanding presidential and congressional action this year on the suicide crisis. After IAVA members visited 160 congressional offices last week, Tarantino is hopeful the bill will get through, even with all the dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

The back-of-the-envelope calculation is that the legislation would cost $1 billion over 10 years, but that doesn’t count cost savings from streamlining care, Tarantino says. And he asks: “What is the cost of losing 22 veterans a day?”

That’s a tough question we should all think about. After writing quite a bit about veterans and the military over the past few years, including columns focused on suicide among veterans and among active-duty service members, I absolutely support more spending on treatment and other programs.

If the Fort Hood shooting spotlights those needs, that’s good. But the cable news talking heads will move on soon enough. If our attention and commitment disappear as well, that would be a shame.