WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) posed a question to his colleagues on Capitol Hill this Sunday: If lawmakers are willing to spend billions of dollars on war, why are they less willing to invest in the welfare of veterans when they come home?
Walsh, an Iraq War veteran, appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" to discuss legislation he introduced last month called the Suicide Prevention Act for American Veterans. The bill would extend veteran eligibility for the Department of Veterans Affairs' health system to 15 years, as opposed to the current five-year window. It would also require the military to review discharge cases for soldiers who were removed from service for exhibiting behavior related to post-traumatic stress.
When host Candy Crowley asked Walsh if concerns have been raised over how much his bill would cost, he said that was simply "the cost of war."
"We spend billions of dollars making sure that our men and women are trained and equipped and ready to deploy, to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever they're stationed around the world," Walsh said. "So we should take that into account when they come home, as well ... We need to make sure that they're ready to go back into society."
"We do a very good job of taking [a] citizen soldier and making a warrior out of him," he went on. "But we aren't doing a very good job of taking that warrior and reintegrating him back into society."
A VA study from last year found that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide daily. According to a member survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, more than 47 percent of respondents said they knew a veteran who had attempted suicide after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Veterans' groups have sought to focus attention on the problem. Last month, the IAVA sent 31 representatives to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and President Barack Obama to discuss mental health.
The VA has increased its annual spending on mental health to roughly $6.5 billion, up 57 percent from 2009. Walsh said more steps are needed to address the longer-term psychological impact of war, given that 69 percent of the veterans who commit suicide are over the age of 50.