VVA Testimony VVA Testimony
VVA Testimony

Statement of


Presented By

Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D.

Senior Analyst for Veterans’ Benefits & Mental Health Issues

Before the

U.S. House of Representatives Veterans Affairs

Subcommittee on Health Regarding

“Oversight Hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs

Suicide Prevention Hotline”

September 16, 2008


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 attempted it.

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 tragedy.”

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 Prevention.
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.


Thomas 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).

In addition, 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 stress disorder.

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.

Funding Statement

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, Contact:
Executive Director of Policy and Government Affairs
Vietnam Veterans of America.
(301) 585-4000, extension 127

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