Congresswoman Kristi Noem’s Weekly Column: Returning from the Battlefield to a Battle at Home

noem press header kristi noem headshot May 21 2014Returning from the Battlefield to a Battle at Home
By Rep. Kristi Noem

Nearly two dozen veterans a day fall victim to suicide. Not only is this number about twice as high as civilian suicide rates, but as of 2012, more men and women in uniform lost their life to suicide than in combat. We cannot accept this as the status quo. We, as a nation, have to do better.

In recent years, the VA has seen its funding increase. Some reforms have been made. But the bureaucracy has remained the same. Wait times are too long. Calls into the veteran suicide crisis hotline have gone to voicemail, according to the VA’s own Inspector General report earlier this year.

Still, there is hope. Veterans who have been able to cut through the VA’s red tape are less likely to lose their life to suicide. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been so vocal about the fact that we need to keep the Hot Springs VA Hospital open. This is a facility that has served veterans for more than 100 years.  Its position in the Black Hills provides a level of serenity that aids in the healing process – especially for those facing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and similar illnesses.

Those who receive care there have lobbied hard to make sure it stays open, as has the Hot Springs community.  Despite all this, the VA has incrementally depleted the number of services offered in Hot Springs and pushed forward a plan to close the facility altogether.  Now is not the time to shutter the doors and tell our veterans to find help elsewhere.

The House has voted to block the VA from using funds to close the facility in Hot Springs or limit services there through FY2017, provisions I fought to include; but veterans deserve a permanent solution.

Earlier this Congress, the House also passed the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which helps increase access to mental healthcare at the VA. The bill became law only months later and implementation is underway. Additional services are also offered to veterans in major mental health legislation that passed Congress just a few weeks ago.

There are also incredible organizations throughout South Dakota that are reaching out and making a difference. Over Independence Day this year, I had the opportunity to meet members of the Lane Logan Memorial LTD at a parade in Watertown. They are working hard to fight PTSD and veteran suicide in memory of Lane, who lost his life to suicide at just 28 years old after serving his country.

The Sergeant Derr Foundation in Rapid City also does important work to advocate and assist those fighting battles after returning home. Sergeant Colton Derr lost his life far too young. As his biography reads, “Colton’s one unfulfilled desire was to share his love with a family of his own. Instead, Colton is sharing his love with our God and family in Heaven.”

Our office is also here to help. If you or a loved one ever faces an unresponsive VA, we are here to help usher you through, ensure they respond, and hold the agency accountable for its failure.

The VA’s directive is to serve our nation’s veterans and provide them with the care they have earned. Especially for those fighting a battle at home against PTSD, TBI and other mental illnesses, it’s time that they begin treating veterans on the service members’ terms, not the VA’s.