Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has an opportunity to save the lives of veterans and service members who are perilously disconnected and pondering suicide. As a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and chair of a key subcommittee on personnel issues, she can provide support for a burgeoning grassroots effort to designate an annual “National Warrior Call Day.”
The inaugural National Warrior Call Day, which if approved by Congress and signed into law by the president, would take place Nov. 21. The day would mark a coast-to-coast call to action to connect with vets and service members. It asks that all Americans make a call to a warrior, with someone who has worn or is currently wearing the uniform and connect them with support, if necessary.
What is driving the push for the annual designation is the disquieting fact that as many as two-thirds of the veterans who take their own lives are terribly disconnected and have had no contact with the Veterans Affairs network of services and supports. Researchers have identified social isolation as "arguably the strongest and most reliable predictor” of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and lethal suicidal behavior," according to the VA.
The measure was recently attached to the House version of the annual defense authorization bill. And Gillibrand, with her important work on military and veterans’ issues, can make all the difference in the Senate.
The need for a National Warrior Call Day has never been greater. Among current service members, a total of 377 current duty service members died by suicide in 2020. That number is up from 348 in the prior year. Active-duty suicides have been steadily increasing since 2016, when there were 280.
For veterans, after adjusting for sex and age, suicide was 27.5 per 100,000 individuals, up from 25.8 per 100,000 two years before. By comparison, among all U.S. adults, the suicide rate per 100,000 was much lower at 18.3. In a solemn metric that underscores the breadth of the tragedy, more than 6,000 veterans have died each year by suicide since 2008.
A pressing concern is that a swath of those who are disconnected and die by suicide may have undiagnosed brain injuries that mirror mental health conditions.
Veteran suicide is a serious problem in New York. An assessment last year by the New York State Health Foundation found “New York State veterans die by suicide at a much higher rate than the overall state population. Particularly concerning is the increasing rate of suicide among New York’s youngest veterans, even as rates among older veterans have declined.”
Gillibrand and her colleagues have an opportunity to make National Warrior Call Day a reality. Greater connection is what is going to turn the tide and save our nation’s bravest in New York and around the country.
Larkin, a former Navy SEAL, and Petry, a 2011 recipient of the Medal of Honor, are co-chairs of the Warrior Call initiative.