Virginian-Pilot: Opinion: The phone call that can save a veteran’s life

VIRGINIAN-PILOT, FRANK LARKIN

Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently released the “Gold Standard Digital Hub” for veterans in the commonwealth, designed to help veterans and military families better access and understand critical benefits. The military, of course, has an outsized presence in Virginia, with facilities such as the Pentagon, Quantico and the Navy’s large presence in the Tidewater.

Such a deep connection to the brave men and women who serve this nation requires proportional attention to a troubling trend: Veterans in Virginia die by suicide at a rate significantly higher than the general population. And this is to say nothing of the many “gray area” deaths associated with substance abuse or other anomalies.

The crisis occurs against the backdrop of new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing suicide rates in the U.S. hit new records in 2022. For veterans under 45 — predominately those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan — suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Many leaders and politicians focus downstream on matters like firearm safety, yet there is a critical need to move upstream to the many precursors to suicidal ideation among veterans, who face unique challenges compared to civilians — including, increasingly, traumatic brain injury. These include marital, legal, work and personal challenges similar to civilians, yet often wrapped in different stigmas given the pervasive culture surrounding the military. At the heart of many of these obstacles is a sense of isolation, supported by the fact that two-thirds of veterans who die by suicide in the U.S. have had no contact with support services such as the VA.

While no cure-all, there is a movement afoot with a deep Virginia connection called Warrior Call. Its mission is to grow connections and increase positive outcomes among troops and veterans.

Warrior Call urges Americans to reach out to veterans and servicemembers, connect with them, and provide support if needed. The measure maintains the support of leading veteran organizations, all living former VA secretaries, Medal of Honor recipients and more.

Both Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner are champions in the Senate, while Rep. Abigail Spanberger is a supporter in the U.S. House. Spanberger recently held a town hall focused on better addressing challenges of Virginia veterans and military families.

In 2022, the Virginia legislature, led by outgoing Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, did its part by designating the Sunday after Veterans Day each year as Warrior Call Day.

These are all positive developments, but it is now incumbent on everyday Virginians to recognize this problem at hand, acknowledge the work of their leaders, and join them in taking simple yet meaningful action: Make a call to a military member or veteran and build a meaningful relationship with him or her. Be a battle buddy; listen to that individual and see if he or she needs help from professional services. If it sounds simple, it is, yet it is important, and one call can change a life.

Virginians who have served or are serving are best equipped to engage given the benefits of peer-to-peer connection.

The work of Virginia’s federal delegation is centered on National Warrior Call Day on Nov. 12, yet every day can be Warrior Call Day for those committed to the cause.

The goal is purposeful and repeated outreach, ideally habitually but at least for one day on Nov. 12. While this alone will in no way eliminate suicide, it can help.

Government programs matter, but individuals play a larger role than they realize. The power to save lives lies in our hands, and we can no longer sit idly as we watch troublesome trends grow worse. Let’s do our part to support those who have served our nation with valor and dedication. Reach out to the veterans in your life, now and on Nov. 12.

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