By Senator Johnny Isakson
Each day, 22 veterans in this country commit suicide; that's about 8,000 each year. Jaws drop, as they should, when I share this very sad and alarming statistic with others. It is clear that our country has a problem and that we must do a better job caring for our troops and veterans, especially when it comes to mental health care.
I frequently hear from veterans and their family members from across Georgia about the problems they face, from long waits for a VA disability claim decision, to difficulty finding civilian employment, to limited access to quality mental health care. As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I know these problems are not confined to just the state of Georgia but exist across the country.
Recent reports from the VA Inspector General have highlighted problems at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. The reports link three suicides to mismanagement at the hospital, and that is both tragic and heartbreaking.
While I believe the VA is committed to addressing this issue, I have asked the VA to take the necessary steps to maximize its resources to prevent more suicides and reverse this alarming trend.
Though the VA and the hospital have responded in some capacity and have taken steps to fix this unacceptable mismanagement, we must be vigilant and follow up thoroughly. We also must know whether similar incidents are happening elsewhere around the country. To that end, I have worked with the committee to schedule an Aug. 7 field hearing in Atlanta to address the issues at the Atlanta VA Medical Center, as well as to discuss how mental health care must be a part of a comprehensive approach to caring for veterans.
I hope this field hearing will not only demonstrate the hospital has executed a plan to address its failures outlined in the Inspector General report, but will expose best practices for providing care to our veterans so we can stem the tide of suicides.
For example, one important part of the solution is community partners. I encourage the VA to continue to work with private mental health providers, service organizations and wounded-warrior groups across the country. When veterans return home, these local partners help the VA better meet the needs of veterans as they transition to civilian life.
One recent report highlighted that several veterans "fell through the cracks" because of a failure to follow through in each case. I am dedicated to ensuring no veteran falls through the cracks when seeking the care that veteran earned.
This hearing is critically important, as we expect to see more than 1 million service members transition from active duty to veteran status in the next few years from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We must see to it that the Department of Veterans Affairs lives up to the promises we have made to our service members and veterans who have shown such bravery in the face of tyranny around the world.
Johnny Isakson, a Republican, represents Georgia in the U.S. Senate.