Retired Staff Sgt. Johnny Jones knows about the devastation from veteran suicide first-hand, as his longtime best friend was unable to get the help he needed in time to save his life.
“My high school best friend, Marine Sgt. Christopher McDonald, took his own life,” Jones told a House subcommittee on Wednesday.
At the beginning of the hearing, the subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.), played a voicemail McDonald left to his friend about his struggle to get mental health treatment.
“I need some help, man,” McDonald said in the voicemail. “The VA told me they take it by case-by-case basis.”
McDonald mentioned having insurance issues, which he said prevented him from getting treatment.
“Basically, them outsourcing it I guess,” McDonald said. “They don’t want to spend the money on it.”
Jones said McDonald ended up seeing no other way out and took his own life.
“Help wasn’t what the VA offered,” Jones told the subcommittee. “Not real help. He was told his case wasn’t severe enough for inpatient rehabilitation.”
The subcommittee said the number of suicides among post-9/11 service members and veterans is now outpacing deaths from combat.
Testimony from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) during the hearing said there’s been a 40% increase in military suicides in the last six years, and in 2019, veteran suicides were nearly double the rate for non-veterans.
Carla Stumpf-Patton lost her veteran husband to suicide in 1994, and she has dedicated her life to helping other military families and vets ever since.
She now serves as the Senior Director for Postvention Programs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).
“Military culture does not incorporate mental health care as a vital part of wellness and readiness,” said Stumpf-Patton during her testimony.
The GAO called for the VA to evaluate its suicide prevention program to make sure its staffing level can keep up with the needs.
“The agency has not conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the effects of the program’s growth, and it is using a staffing model that does not account for an increasing workload,” said Alyssa M. Hundrup, Director of Health Care for GAO. “We believe these shortcomings could put the suicide prevention teams, and ultimately the care they provide to the veterans they serve, at risk of falling short of the program’s goal of reducing suicides among veterans.”
Veterans groups said the government needs to invest more in mental health treatment programs.
“Time is not our friend, and each day we wait is costing lives of brave Americans,” said retired Brig. Gen. Jack Hammond, Executive Director of Home Base. “A vision without resources is a hallucination.”
Jones urged Congress to prioritize helping service members and veterans in crisis like his late friend.
“It is our responsibility to do everything we can to save our military service members from the enemy within,” said Jones.
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