After 17 days of not eating a morsel of food, Tom Mahany ended his hunger strike Thursday, saying that the government got the message that it needs to do more to address military suicide.
When Mahany learned that 26 active-duty soldiers took their lives in July –- double the amount in June and the highest for any month since the Army began reporting such figures, the Vietnam veteran decided to take action, WUSA9.com reports. The Michigan man staged his strike in Washington, D.C. to push the government to form an advisory committee that analyzes military suicide and provides mental health resources.
“I’m doing this because it needs to be done,” he told the news outlet. “Somebody’s got to light this fire.”
For the perseverant activist, suicide is intensely personal.
According to PBS, Mahany’s brother-in-law, also a Vietnam vet, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and killed himself in 1991, leaving behind a wife and two sons.
While he was publicizing his mission, President Obama signed an Executive Order that has brought Mahany reason to hope. The “Improving Access to Mental Health Services for Veterans, Service Members and Military Families,” aims to strengthen suicide prevention efforts, increase the number of VA mental health providers and promote mental health research.
Mahany told the Military Times that the new initiative may "breathe new life into this debate and change the dialog from concentrating solely on the result and beginning the discussion of cause.”
While the government’s new initiative was enough to get Mahany to conclude his hunger strike, he told the news outlet that much more work needs to be done to de-stigmatize the way mental illness is perceived among the military community.
Mahany, who is the executive director of a veteran advocacy group called Honor For All, wants the Defense Department to consider awarding the Purple Heart to military members who have combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. He also wants the condition renamed “post-traumatic stress injury,” according to WUSA9.com
Though the military hasn’t indicated whether Mahany’s protest helped encourage new programs, it has expressed its determination to put an end to the tragic epidemic.
"Suicide is the toughest enemy I have faced in my 37 years in the Army," Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the Army's vice chief of staff, told the Associated Press. "That said, I do believe suicide is preventable. To combat it effectively will require sophisticated solutions aimed at helping individuals to build resiliency and strengthen their life coping skills.”