CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information about retired Navy Cmdr. Jeff Hensley.
WASHINGTON - Former Marine Cpl. Tyler Tannahill left his home in Overland Park, Kan., to spend this week lobbying lawmakers in Washington to honor four fellow Marines who served alongside him in Iraq and Afghanistan but who took their own lives.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Jeff Hensley, a jet fighter pilot in Iraq, joined the “Storm the Hill” mission to help the suicidal vets who seek treatment at the equine therapy center where he is a counselor in Frisco, Texas.
The two men accompanied dozens of other veterans from the nation’s two post-9/11 wars for a push to get Congress and President Obama to take more aggressive steps to counter a historically high suicide rate in their ranks.
“Veterans’ suicide rate has been increasing at an alarming pace over the course of the more than 12 years of these wars,” Hensley told McClatchy. “We feel like it’s time to do something about it.”
With 22 veterans a day taking their lives, according to projections by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the former Iraq and Afghanistan troops met with more than 100 lawmakers on Capitol Hill, attended sessions with senior officials at the Pentagon, the White House and the VA and participated in mental health panels.
In the unseasonal cold of an early spring morning Thursday, with patches of snow still dotting the grass, the group planted more than 1,800 miniature flags on the National Mall, between the Capitol and the White House, to symbolize the number of veterans believed to have taken their own lives this year alone.
While not all of the suicide victims fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, veterans of those conflicts say that the nature of the two wars, the multiple deployments required by a volunteer force and the rough transitions to a still-uncertain civilian economy have made such tragedies more frequent.
“There are no real defined battle lines,” Tannahill said, describing the kind of battlefield that many veterans experienced. “There’s no front. There are no World War II-type enemies in front of us (or who) hold the ground behind us. So there are constant threats all around you. It’s a high-stress environment throughout the entire theater. And the longer you’re exposed to those high stresses, the more deployments you go on, the greater the odds that you’re going to have difficult personal issues.”
The problems have been exacerbated by the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, which have sent large numbers of mainly young vets back home in a shorter period of time, putting extreme pressure on the VA’s health care system.
In addition, technological advances in military armor, tanks and other equipment, and battlefield treatment have led to more veterans surviving serious wounds that would have been fatal in earlier conflicts. And while that’s been a benefit, recovery from those wounds can be long, painful and life changing.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that his department is taking steps to reduce the overuse of Oxycontin and other painkillers, which has been linked to suicides among veterans.
“We work this hard,” Shinseki said. “Our philosophy is that one (suicide) is too many. And every one is a tragedy.”
Derek Bennett, chief of staff with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a 170,000-member advocacy group, said in an interview that the VA has 1,000 funded but unfilled positions for therapists and other mental health counselors. Shinseki, however, said the agency has added 2,400 mental health providers in the last two years, though he acknowledged that it is having trouble recruiting analysts for some posts.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which organized the lobbying week, wants Obama to issue an executive order creating a post for one person to spearhead suicide prevention efforts across the government.
The group is also seeking support for legislation that it’s drafting to increase the number of mental health providers for veterans, cut down on wait times for treatment at VA hospitals and clinics, and provide more coverage for private care. The measure also would include provisions to close frequent gaps between treatment that active-duty service members receive under Defense Department programs and their VA care when they return to civilian life.
On Thursday, Democratic Sen. John Walsh of Montana, a retired Army general who earned a Bronze Star while leading an infantry battalion in Iraq, introduced the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, which incorporates most of the aims sought by the advocacy organization.
“Far too often, we’re leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone, and the crisis of veteran suicide now claims 22 of our finest men and women every single day,” Walsh said in a statement about his legislation. “Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was among the key lawmakers who met with Tannahill and other members of “Team Charlie” on Wednesday, one of eight lobbying squads of veterans that fanned out across Capitol Hill for two days.
“The men and women of our armed services risk their lives to protect us, and they deserve nothing but the best support and health care when they return home,” Smith told McClatchy. “The rate of suicides among returning active-duty troops and veterans is unacceptable.”
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers are still grappling with the scope of a “heartbreaking” challenge with multiple causes and no easy fixes.
“This is a complex problem, one that is not fully understood despite all the resources we have devoted to ending military suicide,” said McKeon, who met with some of the veterans this week.
Hensley, after completing his combat in Iraq and retiring from the Navy, came home determined to help the former service members that he’d seen struggle with emotional problems during service and afterward.
He received a master’s degree in mental health counseling from the University of North Texas in Denton. His employer, Equest, in Wylie, Texas, is a therapy center at which distressed veterans and other patients can ride and care for horses as part of their treatment.
“We’ve seen a number of suicidal veterans come in,” Hensley said. “Fortunately, when they do get help from our program, when they go to the VA, when they go to other mental health providers, they improve. Getting help seems to lower the chances that they will commit suicide.”