Long before COVID-19, America was grappling with another deadly affliction – veteran suicide. Every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for two decades and counting, an average of 20 servicemembers and veterans die by suicide.
That amounts to 140 lives lost every week, 7,280 lives lost every year, and 145,600 lives lost since 2000. Each one of those deaths is a tragedy and, recently, that tragedy hit close to home for those of us in East Tennessee with the loss of one of our own – U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox. Parker grew up in Kingsport and graduated from Dobyns-Bennett High School before joining the Army in 2014.
He was a devoted son, brother, life partner, and friend; a loving owner to his dog, Willie Nelson Fox; a gifted guitar player; and the life of the party who would go out of his way to lift up those around him, particularly if they were struggling. Parker’s obituary notes that “stories abound of his kindness and generosity towards others in their times of need” and that “his legacy is one of loyalty, thoughtfulness, joy, compassion, and deep friendships.” He was just 25 years old when he passed away in July.
Suicide is a multifaceted and complex public health problem. It affects every community in every state and territory and it does not discriminate. While suicide is certainly not veteran-specific, veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans, generally, and veteran women are 2.2 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veteran women, according to the most recent suicide data report released by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Persistent attention and substantial increases in funding, staff, and support from Presidents and politicians of both parties, from VA, from veteran service organizations, and from others across the public and private sectors have been devoted to this problem for years. Despite that, the veteran suicide rate has remained stable. Clearly, our best efforts have missed the mark. That is why I am committed to readjusting our aim in my remaining days in Congress.
S. 785, the Commander John Scott Hannon Mental Health Care Improvement Act, is a bill that recently passed the Senate with the support of a large and diverse group of stakeholders – including lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, the Trump Administration, and veterans service organizations. The bill would prevent veteran suicide by improving access to care and services for at-risk veterans in a variety of ways.
The most impactful provision of the bill, in my opinion, is one that is named in honor of Parker. The Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program is based on the Improve Act, a bipartisan bill that was introduced in the House by Congressman Jack Bergman of Michigan and Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania – both veterans – and is cosponsored by 253 Members of Congress. It would create a grant program to support community-based organizations who are helping veterans and their families in their hometowns and backyards.
The vast majority of the veterans who die by suicide had not received care from VA before their deaths. This means that while we can, should, and have improved the care provided in VA medical facilities, that alone will not help many of the veterans who are most in need. Community support is crucial to addressing this crisis and the program in Parker’s name would develop and strengthen it more than ever before. I am confident it would save lives. What higher goal could there be?
The health fears, social isolation, and economic devastation caused by COVID-19 have only added to concerns about the mental health of Americans, including those who have served, and made the passage of S. 785 more important. Chairman Takano and I made suicide prevention the primary goal of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs this Congress.
I am calling on him and on House Democrat Leadership to pass S. 785 as soon as possible so that it can be signed into law by President Trump without delay. Action is hard to come by in Congress, particularly in an election year, but the time is now. Veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts are counting on us.
If you or a veteran you know is in crisis, free, confidential support is available 24/7 by calling the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1; texting 838255; or visiting veteranscrisisline.net.