“Until we get to zero, we’re not satisfied”: VA officials working to decrease veteran suicide number

Veteran suicide numbers are dropping, but Veterans Affairs officials said it’s still not good enough.

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VA leaders and veterans are now talking about what can be done to save the lives of those who serve.

Every service member’s story is unique.

“The Air Force provided me the opportunity to go places and see things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” U.S. Air Force veteran Jemal Finney recalled.

If you talk to enough of them, however, there are parts that start to sound familiar. Many suffer from the mental and emotional toll of their time in the military.

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“You put your life on the line and I want to ask someone ‘what is the price of freedom’ because for me it’s my mental status right now,” Finney said.

After serving all over the world, Finney needed help. He found it at the DC Vet Center.

“In a group environment, it’s a community,” he described. “The brothers are looking out for each other, and they understand what you’ve been through because they’ve been through something very similar.”

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“It offers that intimate relationship; it’s that the continuity of care,” said Dr. John Lavell, director of the DC Vet Center. “If you’re not a part of something, then you’re apart from something and we offer that sameness, that sense of belonging.”

There are a lot of vets who can relate to what Jemal is experiencing. The latest data from the VA shows about 17 veterans died by suicide every day in 2020. That is the lowest rate since 2016.

“Until we get to zero, we’re not satisfied,” veteran and VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said. “Suicide can be preventable.”

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To help, the suicide hotline is a simple dial 988. Hayes explained now, calls are answered within nine to ten seconds.

In the past, veterans have said that they’ve called the hotline and they’ve been put on hold. We asked Hayes what is different now.

“We have more staff,” he responded. “To those individuals where calls may have been dropped, that’s very unfortunate and we understand that and we recognize that and we’ve been able to correct those issues.”

Finney hopes his fellow vets hear a message he says changed his life.

“Seek help,” he said. “You don’t have to do it alone.”

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