Memorial Day is a unique and special holiday for many reasons. However, unlike others, the American flag is lowered to half-staff until noon, when it is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.
Tradition holds that the half-staff flag honors our fallen, while the full-staff flag shows respect for those who continue in their stead -- a symbol of national perseverance and pride in the face of great adversity.
On Memorial Day, all Americans honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. We thank and pay tribute to generations of men and women for their professionalism, dedication, solemn bravery, and for placing their lives on the line in protection of our freedoms.
Today, America remains at war, as it has been for the past 10 Memorial Days. During that time, over 2.3 million military personnel have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. A growing number of returning service members and veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress, acute brain injuries, severe anxiety, depression, and a variety of other mental health illnesses sustained in battle. Over the past several years, suicide rates among those returning from combat service have increased significantly. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released a study in February of 2013 which estimates that approximately 24 veterans commit suicide every day.
Due to limited data and underreporting, the actual number or rate of veteran suicides is not known. What we do know is that suicide rates are too high and continue to trend in the wrong direction. We also know that suicidal behavior is often associated with these psychological wounds and that when such behavior is diagnosed and treated early, we reach the best outcomes.
One major barrier for veterans seeking professional help is limited access to care, especially in the area of mental health. For example, many of our veterans opt against seeking professional support in order to avoid the stigma that is oftentimes associated with mental health illness. In addition to a shortage of mental health care professionals, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is prevented from offering services unless both the physician and patient are located in a federally-owned facility in the same state, which often prevents veterans from accessing the care they need, when they need it most.
For these reasons, we have introduced the Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act of 2013, or VETS Act (H.R. 2001). This commonsense bill removes these outdated and burdensome state licensure requirements and allows credentialed VA health professionals to offer treatments, including the use of telemedicine, across state borders.
Under the VETS Act, veterans seeking treatment or services will no longer be required to travel to a VA facility. Rather, veterans will have the option of accessing services over the phone or online -- without having to leave the comfort of their own homes, thereby alleviating any perceived stigma of coping with mental illness. By expanding the use of telemedicine, the VETS Act will help the VA better manage resources, reduce clinic and hospital wait times, expand treatment options, and more efficiently utilize the number of qualified health professionals able to service our veteran population.
America faces serious challenges when it comes to meeting the health care needs of those who serve or have served, especially during a time of war. We also face escalating costs in health care, during a time of budgetary constraints. The VETS Act will allow us to effectively navigate both of these challenges.
One amazing attribute shared by the men and women who serve our nation in uniform, is not just their willingness to serve, but their commitment to the safety and protection of their fellow comrades. On this Memorial Day, let us honor the tremendous sacrifice of our nation's fallen heroes while flags are at half-staff, and when flags return to full-staff, let us end the sacrifices our surviving veterans endure by renewing our commitment to their physical health and mental wellbeing.