WASHINGTON — Melissa Bryant said the 5,520 flags placed along the National Mall Wednesday to illustrate the toll of veteran suicide this year alone were more than just a visual reminder of the scope of the problem.
“When we came out here this morning to plant these flags, every one of us had a friend or family member in mind,” said Bryant, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Some of us standing here could have been one of these flags, but for an intervention.”
The event — which has become an unfortunately annual occurrence for veterans advocates — is part of a broader push in recent weeks by lawmakers, veterans groups and Veterans Affairs officials to bring the issue of suicide among former military members back into public consciousness.
Last month, VA officials released new data that showed the overall rate of suicides among veterans has held steady at around 20 a day for roughly a decade, but researchers are seeing a troubling increase in the rate of younger veterans taking their lives.
Those realities come despite a concerned push in recent years by policy makers who have increased crisis intervention and mental health treatment resources for veterans.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and vice ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the next step for Congress is to ensure that VA facilities are properly staffed to respond to the needs of suicidal veterans, and to better identify what programs are working to help stem the problem.
Last week, in a hearing before that committee, health experts said they see a gap in integrating those lessons learned into local community services, to provide a broader safety net for veterans in distress.
But to help fix that gap that, advocates said, they need to remind the public of the problem.
“I have seen far too many veterans and members of my community fall to suicide,” Said Kristen Rouse, founding director of the New York City Veterans Alliance, at Wednesday’s event. “What we see behind us represents a national crisis … These are veterans from your home state, from your hometown, from your home city.”
During Wednesday’s event — held between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument, in an area with heavy tourist foot traffic — dozens of onlookers stopped to take pictures of the display and talk to the advocates involved.
Stephanie Keegan, whose son Daniel served in Afghanistan but died in 2016 because of delays in receiving treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder, said she was grateful to share her families struggles with those visitors.
“It absolutely makes a difference,” she said. “Not enough people understand the problem and the consequences of our wars. As a country, we need to pay more attention.”
To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.