Warner Crafted New Law to Improve Life for Veterans

The pandemic is expected to raise rates of suicide nationwide.

By Amie Knowles

December 1, 2020

A Virginia lawmaker wants to put an end to veteran suicides.

ALEXANDRIA – Arriving home from war, some soldiers face a new battlefield as they adjust to civilian life. The Department of Veterans Affairs says the risk of suicide almost doubles during a veteran’s first year away from active duty.

When the Department of Veterans Affairs changed their calculation method on veteran suicides in 2019, the number of those dying per day dropped from 20 or more to 17. Still, the number was far too high for Virginia Senator Mark Warner.

“Well, it’s mind boggling in a country as wealthy as ours, in a country where we have, I think, tried to make sure we honor our commitment to our veterans,” Warner said.

The senator noted that the number didn’t derive from a lack of money, but potentially a lack of connections. Even though the number of daily veteran suicides dropped to a recent low of 17, Warner wanted to find a way to reduce it further.

He opened the conversation with a June 2019 bill, which became a law this October. The IMPROVE Well-Being for Veterans Act helps solve a few issues.

IMPROVE stands for Incorporating Measurements and Providing Resources for Outreach to Veterans Everywhere. The law features three key elements. First, it enables the VA to directly or indirectly reach more veterans than it currently does. Second, it increases coordination among currently disparate community resources that serve a wide variety of veteran needs – all of which play a part in reducing the purposelessness that ends in suicide. Third, it creates and inspires broad adoption of a measurement tool that indicates effectiveness of services provided for veteran suicide prevention.

Make Sure You Help Veterans

In a way, the law honors a virtue Warner’s father, a World War II veteran, instilled within him.

“The idea that it doesn’t matter what your politics [are]. You’ve got to make sure you could help veterans,” Warner said. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen over the years veterans [haven’t got] their benefits. I’ve seen active duty military be put in substandard housing. We’ve seen this issue of veteran suicide really become a national tragedy. I mean, over 17 veterans a day commit suicide. Two-thirds of these veterans have had no access to the services that they’ve earned at the VA. I thought this was a crisis that we could actually do something on.”

Through the law-making process for the IMPROVE Act, Warner learned that up to two-thirds of veterans dealing with suicidal thoughts or tendencies from their military experiences weren’t receiving specialized services. That’s because the veterans had not enrolled in the VA system.

“This legislation is not going to completely solve the problem, but it should be that kind of connector. We’ve got a lot of organizations in the community that try to deal with suicide overall. We’ve got the VA over here with specialized programs for veterans with mental health issues, particularly PTSD. What we didn’t have was something linking these people together,” Warner said. “And the IMPROVE Act puts some money in place to try to link those folks who are doing a great job in the community, helping people with mental health issues, helping people who might be moving toward taking their own life, and then connects those people at-risk if they’ve been a veteran with the VA and the more specialized services they’ve earned.”

RELATED: A Road to Recovery: Virginia College Helps Veterans Deal with PTSD

Bridging the Gap

The new law serves as a bridge between veterans and established services that assist with everything from PTSD flashbacks to promoting healthy thought management.

“We didn’t need to, you know, recreate the wheel. There’s a lot of great organizations, literally tens of thousands of organizations, across Virginia and across the country that help people on suicide prevention. What we were missing, though, was that link that said, you know, somebody’s got a mental health issue,” Warner said. “But many times if that person has got a mental health issue that might be PTSD because it was of some time when they were in the military, that local suicide prevention group might not have the expertise and knowledge that the VA would have. So either you would have people go to the local source, the person has qualified for VA benefits, but has never accessed them. This was an attempt to marry the two. I think so far the community and the VA and everyone else feels really good about the prospects.”

Looking Ahead

As the law gains traction and more veterans gain more tangible access to services, Warner expressed hope in a decreased veteran suicide rate as early as 2021.

However, it’s not a one-man-show. Warner applauded fellow legislators and leaders who also displayed commitment to the cause – specifically, Arkansas Senator John Boozman. Furthermore, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds and North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis originally cosponsored the legislation.

“My ultimate goal would be, you know, to erase veteran suicides – to make that no longer a problem, an issue. I know Gov. [Ralph] Northam has got some state initiatives. It’s going to take, I think, a variety of programs. There’s not a one-size-fits-all. I think this IMPROVE Act, bi-partisan legislation that says let’s use the existing resources in the community, but then make sure that if you’re a veteran, you get connected to those specialized services that you could get at the VA,” Warner said. “I think this will be an important step in the right direction. If we can look back a year from now and have that number of 17 suicides today drop to below 10, I think that would be a great step forward.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized


Local News

Related Stories
Share This