August 31, 2021

Senators Hassan, Ernst, Cassidy, and Warnock Lead Bipartisan Group Calling on VA to Address Impact of Afghanistan Withdrawal on Veterans’ Mental Health

Senators Call on VA to Increase Outreach to Veterans of Afghanistan and the Global War on Terrorism Providing Access to Mental Health Services and Care

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), and Raphael Warnock (D-GA) are leading a bipartisan group of 31 additional Senators calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to swiftly develop and conduct outreach to veterans of the Global War on Terrorism – especially those who served in Afghanistan – to provide them with mental health resources. Their call for action comes as reports find calls to veterans’ suicide hotlines have increased since the fall of Kabul earlier this month.

 

“We write in light of the recent events in Afghanistan to encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to quickly develop a comprehensive outreach plan to connect Afghanistan and Global War on Terrorism veterans to VA benefits and services,” wrote the Senators. “More than two million veterans served during the Global War on Terrorism, including more than 800,000 in Afghanistan, and these service members deserve and earned the support that they need. We appreciate the VA’s commitment to providing mental health services to all veterans and ask, in light of the current situation, that the Department accelerate its efforts to provide resources – to veterans of these recent conflicts.”

 

In their letter, the Senators note that veterans between the ages of 18 to 34 have the highest suicide rate among former service members and that many veterans do not use the Veterans Health Administration services which provides many mental health resources geared at preventing suicide among service members. 

 

“For this reason, we ask that the VA develop a comprehensive outreach plan to connect Afghanistan and Global War on Terrorism veterans to VA benefits and services. This plan must proactively contact veterans in the coming months through means including, but not be limited to: digital correspondence, social media, phone calls, and text messages,” the Senators continued. “Furthermore, VA's outreach should consist of detailed information on clinical mental health services and community-based support systems, such as Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and VA Vet Centers. For example, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is just one of many VSOs that helps connect veterans to services critical to mental health and overall well-being.”

 

“This has been an incredibly challenging time for the veteran community and VA must ensure that there is a sustained, comprehensive plan to reach veterans and connect them with potentially life-saving resources both within the VA and through VSOs, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVA) Quick Reaction Force (QRF),” said Jeremy Butler, IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) CEO. “We thank Senators Maggie Hassan, Joni Ernst, Bill Cassidy, and Raphael Warnock and all of the Senators that signed onto this important letter to ensure that the VA is doing everything that they can to help our veterans during this difficult time.”

 

In addition to Senators Hassan, Ernst, Cassidy, and Warnock, co-signers of the letter include Senators Baldwin (D-WI), Bennet (D-CO), Braun (R-IN), Cantwell (D-WA), Capito (R-WV), Casey (D-PA), Collins (R-ME), Cortez Masto (D-NV),  Crapo (R-ID), Daines (R-MT), Durbin (D-IL), Grassley (R-IA), Hickenlooper (D-CO), Hoeven (R-ND), Kaine (D-VA), Kelly (D-AZ), Klobuchar (D-MN), Leahy (D-VT), Marshall (R-KS), Peters (D-MI), Portman (R-OH), Reed (D-RI), Risch (R-ID), Rosen (D-NV), Schatz (D-HI), Shaheen (D-NH), Smith (D-MN), Thune (R-SD), Van Hollen (D-MD), Warner (D-VA), and Wyden (D-OR).

 

See the full text of the letter here and below.

 

Dear Secretary McDonough:

 

We write in light of the recent events in Afghanistan to encourage the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to quickly develop a comprehensive outreach plan to connect Afghanistan and Global War on Terrorism veterans to VA benefits and services. More than two million veterans served during the Global War on Terrorism, including more than 800,000 in Afghanistan, and these service members deserve and earned the support that they need. We appreciate the VA’s commitment to providing mental health services to all veterans and ask, in light of the current situation, that the Department accelerate its efforts to provide resources – to veterans of these recent conflicts.

 

The VA recently sent out correspondence with digital links to veterans encouraging them to seek help if they are experiencing distress related to their service in Afghanistan or if they need any mental health services. This is a first step, but the VA should go beyond this initial outreach. As you know, veterans aged 18 to 34 have the highest suicide rate among former service members.[1] Beyond that, the VA’s National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report repeatedly indicates that veterans, including those who served in Afghanistan, do not use Veterans Health Administration services aimed at decreasing suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

 

For this reason, we ask that the VA develop a comprehensive outreach plan to connect Afghanistan and Global War on Terrorism veterans to VA benefits and services. This plan must proactively contact veterans in the coming months through means including, but not be limited to: digital correspondence, social media, phone calls, and text messages. Furthermore, VA's outreach should consist of detailed information on clinical mental health services and community-based support systems, such as Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and VA Vet Centers. For example, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is just one of many VSOs that helps connect veterans to services critical to mental health and overall well-being. Emphasis should also be placed on pairing veterans with localized support and resources.

 

As a country, we must keep the physical and mental wellbeing of our veterans at the forefront of our minds and efforts. Especially given the constant media coverage and disturbing images coming out of Afghanistan, we ask for your commitment to developing a comprehensive outreach plan for our Global War on Terrorism, and specifically our Afghanistan veterans. We must fulfill our obligation to those who served and never forget their sacrifices.

 

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