SARASOTA (WWSB) - Millions of federal dollars set aside to help suicidal veterans went untouched in 2018. Now Congressman Vern Buchanan is calling for answers and local veterans are calling for change.
A study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that our nation’s Veterans Health Administration isn’t doing enough to try to prevent veteran suicide.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, every 72 minutes an American veteran takes his or her life, and the federal organization created to help our soldiers, the Department of Veterans Affairs, isn’t using most of the federal funds allocated to it to help change the epidemic.
According to a recent GAO report, $6.2 million was set aside in 2018 for suicide prevention outreach. The Department of Veterans Affairs' Veterans Health Administration only spent $57,000 of it. That’s less than one percent. The report claims that as a result the VHA may not have exposed suicidal veterans to the support they needed.
Congressman Vern Buchanan wrote a letter to United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie expressing his shock and irritation regarding the VA’s lack of spending.
“I think they do a lot of good things like our national cemetery here locally," Congressman Buchanan said. “There are a lot of positive things they do. The benefits the veterans get are pretty good, but there are some things they drop the ball on, and obviously this is one that’s not acceptable. And I’m going to be very passionate to make sure it gets addressed.”
Secretary Wilkie did not respond, according to Congressman Buchanan, but in the GAO report, blamed the lack of outreach on leadership turnover.
“That’s not acceptable," Congressman Buchanan said. "They need the right leadership, and if they don’t, they need to go, and we will get the right leadership.”
In a statement to ABC 7, a spokesperson for the VA said: “[the] VA appreciates the Congressman’s views and will respond to him directly.”
The statement went on to say that the National Director of Suicide Prevention position was vacant for nine months during David Shulkin’s brief tenure as secretary and that Dr. Keita Franklin has since been appointed to the role since Wilkie took over as secretary.
According to a VA spokesperson, the organization accepts the GAO recommendation to do more to evaluate effectiveness of suicide prevention media outreach.
A Veteran’s Point of View
"I think the federal government needs to understand the VA can’t do it.”
Bryan Jacobs is a Suncoast veteran and founder of Vets2Success. He says he’s frustrated about where the VA is putting the money it does spend. Funds that currently go to advertising and social media, Jacobs would like to see spent elsewhere.
“A lot of these guys don’t turn on TV," Jacobs explained. "A lot of these guys don’t use social media. A lot of these guys and girls are kind of dormant in their homes and communities. I really think the government needs to start looking at local impact programs.”
That’s what Jacobs does with his organization, and Vets2Success doesn’t qualify for any federal dollars.
“Social media isn’t what changes a veteran’s life," he said. "It’s being around other veterans. It’s about finding a sense of purpose.”
Veterans in Jacobs' program focus on food and brew or what he calls passion and purpose: Vet to Chef, Vet to Brew, Vet to Bake and the latest Vet to Garden.
“We wanted a place where families could come and just have some quiet," Jacobs said. “If you come out here and be deep in your thoughts, but be around people that care and doing something purposeful, that’s what veterans want to do. They want to serve again.”
If you or someone you know is a veteran and having suicidal thoughts or just need help, call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24/7/365. The number is 800-273-8255, and there’s a number to text as well: 838255.