FAYETTEVILLE -- Suicides among veterans remain high despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent to address the problem over many years, Sen. John Boozman told veterans groups Thursday.
"Twenty to 22 veterans a day died from suicide 20 years ago. Today, 20 to 22 veterans a day die from suicide," Boozman told a group of about 50 veterans and veteran-affiliated business leaders at a meeting at the Fayetteville Public Library.
"We haven't really pushed the needle 20 years and billions of dollars later."
The suicide rate in the U.S. is 14.5 per 100,000 population, according to figures from the World Health Organization. The rate among veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs figures, is 27.5 per 100,000.
Congress budgeted $9 billion to combat the problem this federal fiscal year, a figure that has grown from $3 billion 10 years ago, according to figures provided by Boozman's staff. The federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Boozman added a provision into an October 2020 appropriation by Congress on veterans mental health spending. The provision allows grants to nonprofit groups and state and local organizations active in veteran suicide prevention.
Thursday's meeting discussed a variety of veterans-related issues from job opportunities to housing, but Boozman emphasized the suicide issue in his remarks. Meeting attendees included Mikel Brooks of Little Rock from the veteran suicide prevention group "We Are the 22" and psychotherapist Megan Werner of Fayetteville.
The U.S. has lost 7,000 armed services members in combat since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- and more than 30,000 veterans to suicide in the same time period, Werner said.
"People lose a sense of mission and purpose when they take off the uniform and try to re-enter civilian life," said Brooks, a National Guard veteran. Brooks spent five years in homelessness before attempting suicide Feb. 17, 2017, he said. He regained a sense of mission and purpose by helping form "We Are the 22," a group where veterans respond to a fellow veterans call for help by going to him in pairs and doing whatever it takes see the veteran through a crisis.
The suicide problem got worse during the covid-19 pandemic, Werner said.
"The number one problem before covid was loneliness," she said of suicidal veterans. Then covid hit, requiring social distancing and other self-isolating practices, she said.
Sept. 11 will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which spiked the highest volunteer enlistments in the U.S. armed services in decades, said Ben Dykes, director of the Washington County Office of Veterans Services.
Those enlistees who are still in the service will soon reach their 20-year retirement eligibility, meaning more demands on veterans services of all kinds, he said.