VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA
J. Berger, Ph.D.
Senior Analyst for Veterans’ Benefits & Mental
U.S. House of Representatives Veterans Affairs
Subcommittee on Health Regarding
“Oversight Hearing on the
Department of Veterans Affairs
Suicide Prevention Hotline”
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Miller, Distinguished Members of the
House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health and honored guests,
Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) thanks you for the opportunity to
present our views on oversight of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs
Suicide Prevention Hotline”. We should also like to thank you
for your overall concern about the mental health care of our troops
and veterans. With your permission, I shall keep my remarks brief and
to the point.
The subject of suicide is extremely difficult to talk
about and is a topic that most of us would prefer to avoid. But as
uncomfortable as this subject may be to discuss, VVA believes it to
be a very real public health concern in our military and veteran communities,
and as veterans of the Vietnam war and those who care for them, many
of us have known someone who has committed suicide and others who have
In 2003 media reports of suicide deaths and suicide attempts
among active duty OEF and OIF soldiers and veterans first began to
surface after a spate of suicides in Iraq during the first months of
the war. Subsequent major television news stories, independent research
studies and additional investigative reports (including the release
of e-mails from a top-level VA administrator who seemingly suggested
not disclosing veteran suicide information to the media) disclosed
the high rate of suicides and suicide attempts in our nation’s
veteran community. All this culminated in the announcement by VA Secretary
Dr. James Peake in the late spring of 2008 that the Department of Veterans
Affairs (VA) had formed a blue-ribbon panel of mental health experts
to study and develop recommendations to help reduce the number of suicides
among America’s veterans.
On Tuesday, September 9, 2008 the VA
issued a press release which stated that the panel had completed its
draft report “praising the VA for its comprehensive
strategy in suicide prevention that includes a number of initiatives
that hold great promise for preventing suicide attempts and completions.” Among
the items addressed in the draft report was the VA’s Suicide
Prevention Lifeline or suicide hotline, initiated in July 2007 in conjunction
with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
(SAMHSA). According to the press release, “nearly 33,000 veterans,
family members or friends of veterans have called the lifeline…” and “Of
those, there have been more than 1,600 rescues to prevent possible
The Suicide panel report dated September 9, 2008, stated: “The
suicide rate among young male veterans who served during the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars reached a record high in 2006, the latest year for
which records are available, according to data released by the Department
of Veterans Affairs.” The
question that occurs is what impact, if any, have the measures taken
by the Department of Veterans Affairs (including the “hotline”)
and/or the Department of Defense had on the apparent diminishment of
the rate of suicides among this group in the last two years? Has there
been any change in the way in which these statistics are gathered or
compiled during this period?
In the absence of any yet implemented VA
national suicide surveillance plan or program for veterans, these call
data seem impressive, and the VA is to be congratulated in this endeavor
because one veteran “rescued” from
suicide is worth the effort, but real questions remain, for example
- What is the daily number of calls?
- How many calls have to be re-routed
to high-volume back up call centers?
- What is the definition of “rescue”?
- 1,600 “rescues” represents only .048 percent of the
calls. What is the status of the rest of the calls?
- Is there a follow up/tracking procedure? For one month? For three months?
- How many calls are from veterans already enrolled in the VA system?
- How many have attempted suicide previously?
- How many veterans participated in combat?
The VA deserves congratulations
on the implementation of the suicide hotline as it represents a cornerstone
in its strategies to reduce suicides and suicidal behaviors among veterans.
However, the real “first line of defense” against
suicide for the last twenty five years has been the VA Vet Centers
of the Readjustment Counseling Service of the Department of Veterans
Affairs (VA). There is still a need to hire additional professional
counseling staff at existing Vet Centers, in order that the Vet Centers
have the organizational capacity to meet all of the demands and needs
of every generation of combat veterans.
Further, the hotline can be
improved upon significantly by instituting a better tracking system,
linking into VA health care, better identification of where the veterans
served, and other significant epidemiological markers. We encourage
this Subcommittee to exercise diligent oversight as the VA addresses
the eight major recommendations of the blue ribbon work group on Suicide
I shall be glad to answer any questions you might have. Again, I thank
you on behalf of the Officers, Board, and members of VVA for the opportunity
to speak to this vital issue on behalf of America’s veterans.
J. Berger, Ph.D.
Dr. Tom Berger is a Life Member of Vietnam Veterans
of America (VVA) and founding member of VVA Chapter 317 in Kansas City,
Missouri. After serving as chair of VVA’s national PTSD and Substance
Abuse Committee, he recently joined the staff of the VVA national office
as Senior Analyst for Veterans’ Benefits & Mental
Health Issues. As such, he is a member and Chair of the Veterans’ Healthcare
Administration’s (VHA) Consumer Liaison Council for the Committee
on Care of Veterans with Serious Mental Illness (SMI Committee), the
Executive Committee of the Mental Health Quality Enhancement Research
Initiative Depression Work Group (MHQUERI), and the South Central Mental
Illness Research and Education Clinical Center (SC MIRECC).
Dr. Berger holds the distinction of being the first representative
of a national veterans’ service organization to hold membership
on the VHA’s Executive Committee of the Substance Use Disorder
Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (SUD QUERI). Dr. Berger also
serves as a reviewer of research proposals for DoD’s “Congressionally
Directed Medical Research Programs”.
He is a member of VVA’s national Health Care, Government Affairs,
Agent Orange and Toxic Substances and Women Veterans committees. Dr.
Berger served as a Navy Corpsman with the 3rd Marine Corps Division
in Vietnam, 1967-68. Following his military service and upon the subsequent
completion of his postdoctoral studies, he held faculty and administrative
appointments at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, the State University
System of Florida in Tallahassee, and the University of Missouri-Columbia,
as well as program administrator positions with the Illinois Easter
Seal Society and United Cerebral Palsy of Northwest Missouri. His professional
publications include books and research articles in the biological
sciences, wildlife regulatory law, adolescent risk behaviors, and post-traumatic
Dr. Berger now devotes his efforts full-time to veterans’ advocacy
at the local, state and national levels on behalf of Vietnam Veterans
of America. He presently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland and his
hobbies are cycling, music, cooking, and reading.
VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA
The national organization Vietnam Veterans
of America (VVA) is a non-profit veterans' membership organization
registered as a 501(c) (19) with the Internal Revenue Service. VVA
is also appropriately registered with the Secretary of the Senate and
the Clerk of the House of Representatives in compliance with the Lobbying
Disclosure Act of 1995.
VVA is not currently in receipt of any federal grant or contract, other
than the routine allocation of office space and associated resources
in VA Regional Offices for outreach and direct services through its
Veterans Benefits Program (Service Representatives). This is
also true of the previous two fiscal years.
For Further Information,
Executive Director of Policy and Government Affairs
Vietnam Veterans of America.
(301) 585-4000, extension 127