Veterans groups have a long list of issues for Congress to address but they say mental health remains their top priority. Virginia lawmakers say their state government also needs to step up to the plate.
Soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are presenting the Department of Veterans Affairs with new challenges. Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America says there’s a sad reality pressing on the nation – and veterans in the state. "But our number one issue will be suicide, The known rate of suicide among troops and vets is deplorable. VA estimates project 22 veterans a day die by suicide."
Last year the V-A cut its backlog of veteran’s claims from 600,000 to 400,000, but lawmakers of all stripes agree that number is still too high. But there’s a disagreement over how to fix the problem. Most Republicans, like Virginia Congressman Scott Rigell, say they aren’t convinced increased funding is the answer. "And I don't know that just simply, you know, pushing more money that way is the solution. I think they are working diligently within the VA. I'm not satisfied with the results. But I don't know that it helps simply to pile on.”
Virginia Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith agrees. He says he wishes V-A employees met more with veterans. "Maybe sometimes get out of the ivory tower and go see what's really happening in the field. You know, maybe they need to do some more training seminars like that so that they can see what's going on in the field. They might work a little harder to push those things out a little quicker."
Griffith says officials at V-A facilities also need more precise training in order to properly diagnose the nations’ newest veterans. "Because the people with PTSD have to deal with, with the sudden wave of emotion about something. Whereas somebody who's got a major personality disorder who might just be screaming for no apparent reason. It's a completely different diagnosis and you don't want them necessarily in the same room."
But Northern Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran says Republicans are kidding themselves if they think current funding levels are adequate. "It's very much a monetary issue. We're talking probably a trillion dollars before we've covered all of the health and mental health needs of the veteran population."
Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine sits on both the Budget and Armed Services Committees – so he’s reviewed the V-A problem from both a military and a budgetary perspective. "We've heard continuing problems with, you know, backlogs and records, etc. Those are getting better, but from a budgetary standpoint, we've got to meet our obligations."
Congressman Moran says the V-A problem is personal for his generation. "My peers who fought in the Vietnam War have a disproportionate number who are homeless today, who can't get a job, can't provide for a family. They've been incapacitated, disabled if you will, for most of their lives. And we didn't do anything about it."
In Virginia there’s another problem for the state’s thousands of veterans: overcrowding. Lawmakers say the stabbing of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Creigh Deeds, by his mentally unstable son exemplifies how overcrowded state facilities are problematic for those in need of mental health help. . Moran says for Deed’s son, who later committed suicide, to be turned away because of overcrowding shows the need for state level reforms.
"For him to have encountered this in such a stark way knowing that this is truly a mental health issue and it goes to the heart of the lack of capacity in the state. We really ought to take the lead on this."
Moran says the House of Delegates made a mistake by rejecting an expansion of Medicaid, which covers mental health issues. And Republicans on Capitol Hill are dubious of increasing the V-A budget, so for now the V-A is being called on to improve its record with its current budget.