Opinion: I'm not sure Congress really cares about vet suicide

Eric Dehm
October 09, 2018 - 2:22 pm

ConnectingVets Photo by Libby howe

Having moved to Maryland just last year, I don't know a lot about my congressman. After talking to IAVA Legislative director Tom Porter on my radio show, I can now tell you at least one fact about him: Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger was not present at the Washington Monument for IAVA's flag planting ceremony in memory of the over 5,520 veterans who have committed suicide so far in 2018. 

He wasn't alone. IAVA says they sent invitations to every member's legislative director, scheduler and military/VA aide, but unless you are from California's 41st District, your representative didn't attend. Neither did your senators, as 0 out of 100 showed up, though Montana Sen. Jon Tester did at least send his staff to attend the event.

California Rep. Mark Takano, a member of the House Veteran's Affairs Committee, was the lone member of Congress who felt this was the kind of thing worth attending, and I sincerely thank him for that. The twenty-three others from the committee focusing on veteran issues were no-shows.

So where were they, and everybody else?

The Senators were a bit busy last week with the Supreme Court confirmation, but up until the floor vote on Oct. 5th, it was only the Senate Judiciary Committee that was dealing with it directly. The IAVA event was on Oct. 3rd. There are 21 members on that committee, so by my count 79 Senators should have been free to attend. You'd think at least one or two could make it.

According to IAVA's Porter, most members of the House of Reps were out of town that day. There wasn't anything on the House schedule Wednesday or Thursday so they took off to go campaigning. At face value, that makes sense, particularly considering it is a month out from the election. But here's a fun question: How many of them would have stayed, or come back, to D.C. if one of their major donors held a fundraiser for them or if one of the big Capitol Hill kingmakers wanted a meeting? I'd put my money on "most" and I'd consider a small wager on "all" too. A veterans group planting flags to honor our brothers and sisters in arms apparently doesn't rate a taxpayer-funded trip, let alone one they'd have to pay for.

Of course, it didn't seem important enough to attend even for the Representatives in nearby Virginia or Maryland. I drive from central Maryland to DC every day. It's not a particularly long or difficult trip as any of the state's 8 members of the House should know. On top of that, the event was in the morning, they'd have been back in the office by lunch. Sure, they might have had "prior commitments" but if so I'd like to see what they had committed to that took priority over bringing attention to the scourge of suicide that continues to grow within the Post 9/11 veteran community with the latest data showing a 10% rate increase from 2015 to 2016. 

Politicians are more than willing to talk about how we need to address the issue (particularly on the campaign trail) and they have passed veteran-focused legislation recently (in a hotly contested campaign year) but only one showed up to lend support to one of the organizations working to deal with it on a daily basis. 

I've seen this before in my time in D.C. Events run by veterans organizations like the VFW, American Legion and so on where the politicians are invited but only a handful show up, at best. A prime example is the inaugural day of honor for the American Veterans Disabled For Life Memorial a year ago. I was privileged to be asked to MC the event so I had a pretty good viewpoint from up on the podium to see Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Lois Frankel, who both spoke at the event. 

I didn't see any other elected officials, as none saw fit to honor those who left a part of themselves behind on the battlefield. They missed a beautiful, emotional ceremony. No, we didn't need them there... it just would have been nice to see them there. Same goes for last week at the monument.

Thankfully, the impact of seeing those 5,520 flags next to that monument which pays tribute to the father of our nation, who was also a war hero, drew quite a bit of attention. Local and national media were there, tourists stopped the IAVA volunteers to ask about what was going on, and so on. But when those cameras turned to those who gathered for the remarks made after the planting, what an opportunity it would have been for members of Congress to show they truly care about the shocking rate at which the men and women who served are taking their own lives. 

There could have been 20, 50, 100 or more of our elected representatives standing alongside the veteran volunteers on hand. Instead, there was one, one I'd never heard of before named Mark Takano. Now I know who he is, and I know he cares about us. I'm not so sure about all the rest.

Eric Dehm hosts CBS Eye on Veterans. He is a veteran of the US Navy, having served for 13 years including a deployment to Afghanistan and four additional overseas tours in Europe and Asia.

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5,520 flags... one for every veteran who took their own life