- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2019

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday creating a Cabinet-level task force to prevent more than 20 veterans’ suicides per day, calling it “one of our nation’s most heartbreaking tragedies.”

“Veterans suicide is a tragedy of staggering proportions,” Mr. Trump said at the White House with representatives of veterans organizations. “There are more than 6,000 veterans suicides per year. Who would believe that’s possible?”

He declared, “Today we can help end this crisis.”

Frank Larkin, a retired Navy SEAL who lost his son Ryan to suicide, said a “Manhattan-like Project” is needed to develop therapies to solve the problem. Mr. Larkin said he planned to go visit his son’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery after the event to tell him that he was still making a difference.

The task force, under the direction of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, will have one year to develop a “comprehensive, national public health road map” to coordinate suicide-prevention efforts, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

Mr. Trump signed the order on the initiative called the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or PREVENTS. It’s another step in a plan that he ordered in January to ensure more mental health support for troops transitioning to civilian life.

A Government Accountability Office report late last year found that the VA left $6.2 million unspent that was available for suicide prevention efforts in fiscal 2018, spending only $57,000 on paid media.

Mr. Wilkie pointed to three VA “heroes” who helped to subdue a double amputee veteran who started shooting in the emergency room of the West Palm Beach, Florida, VA Medical Center last week.

A doctor subdued the 59-year-old shooter, Larry Ray Bon, and was wounded in the neck. The Army veteran was about to undergo a mental-health evaluation when he pulled out the gun.

The president said about 70 percent of veterans’ suicides are people who aren’t currently in the VA system. Part of the new effort will be to coordinate grants for support networks to provide better services at the state and local levels “where and when they are needed,” the official said.

It’s not clear whether the effort will include any new federal spending. The aide said despite billions of tax dollars spent on the problem in recent years, “the impact has been minimal.”

“It will be up to the task force to figure out what level of effort is needed,” the official said.

Thomas Winkel, a Marine Corps veteran and founder of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, said the president’s initiative “is exactly what this country needs.”

“There needs to be a sense of coordination and collaboration,” he said. “We have the ability to prevent suicide, to make lives have more meaning. If everyone knows what to do when an individual is in trouble, they will act.”

The president said he wants veterans to know that “you have an entire nation of more than 300 million people behind you.”

Mr. Trump also asserted that the White House veterans’ hotline, which actually is run out of a VA facility in West Virginia, has been “very, very effective.” The number is (855) 948-2311.

“The White House VA hotline has successfully resolved more than 93 percent of calls,” Mr. Trump said. “Unfortunately most veterans who die of suicide have not been in the care of the VA. They’re just not aware of those great strides.”

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