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April 17th, 2014
04:58 PM ET

22 veterans kill themselves every day

By CNN's Nefi Alarcon

More than half of the 2.6 million veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars struggle with physical and mental health problems stemming from their service, a recent Washington Post & Kaiser Family Foundation poll found.

Whether it’s physical and mental health challenges, financial woes, or what some describe as the “daunting task” of re-assimilating to civilian life, the pressure can be overwhelming.

In fact, 22 veterans kill themselves every day, according to a report released in February of last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Far too often, we're leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone," Senator John Walsh told CNN.

The Democrat from Montana is the first Iraq War combat veteran to serve in the United States Senate.  Last month he introduced legislation aimed at reducing the number of military veterans who commit suicide.

“I think we do a pretty good job of taking that citizen soldier and making a warrior out of him, but we aren’t doing a very good job of taking that warrior and reintegrating him back into society,” Walsh said.

From 2004 to 2005 Senator Walsh served as a commander for a Montana National Guard unit in Iraq.  When the unit returned home, one of his soldiers committed suicide.

“There are a lot of resources out there that will help these young men and women or service members, but we just have to make sure that we get them the help that they need,” Walsh said.

Tom Tarantino, also an Iraq War veteran, currently working for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes that suicides are the “end result” of a series of systematic failures.

“One of the things that we do know is that veterans who seek care often get better.” Tarantino told CNN.   The problem, he says, is “the care they receive often doesn’t give them what they need.”

The Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans Act is a joint effort between Walsh and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America group. Founded in 2004, the 270,000 member organization is the first and largest organization for new veterans and their families.

“These men and women… are willing to sacrifice their lives for our country,” Walsh said.

One group that appears to be the most vulnerable to suicides are veterans 50 years and older.   According to the VA, 69 percent of veteran suicides come from that age group.

Walsh’s bill extends the care veterans are entitled to from five years to 15 years.

“This is the cost of war,” Walsh said “We spend billions of dollars making sure that our men and women are trained and equipped…. We need to make sure that they’re ready to go back into society.”

Walsh and Tarantino believe that more should be done to help serviceman, both before military service and after the war is over. They acknowledge this will be a long process.

“If 22 people were dying on the battlefield a day, like 22 veterans are dying by suicide a day, no one would be asking how much it costs; they'd be shipping weapons and military reinforcements there tomorrow.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley talked to Senator Walsh and Tom Tarantino about what else can be done to help. The interview will air on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday at 12pm ET.

Explore more about "The Uncounted" on military spouses, siblings and parents struggling with suicide as loved ones are deployed to war. www.cnn.com/uncounted

CNN's Ellen Van de Mark contributed to this report.


Filed under: John Walsh • Mental Health • Military • State of the Union • Tom Tarantino • Veterans
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