Trump Sets Up Task Force to Prevent Veteran Suicides

March 5, 2019 Updated: March 5, 2019

WASHINGTON—Veteran Navy SEAL Ryan Larkin lost his final battle, to suicide, on April 23, 2017. He was 29.

Ryan deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, as well as completed missions to Lebanon and Honduras, according to his obituary. He was trained as a special ops combat medic and a sniper.

His father, veteran and former Senate Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin, spoke at the White House on March 5, right before President Donald Trump signed an executive order to help curb veteran suicides.

“Ryan was a decorated, high-performing Navy SEAL who suddenly went over the edge,” Larkin said. “In the two years we tried to rescue him, he was prescribed over 40 different drugs.”

Larkin said Ryan kept saying there was something wrong with his head, and a few months before he ended his life, expressed a wish to donate his body to traumatic brain injury (TBI) research.

“Ryan was concerned about his teammates and the similar struggles that they were experiencing following both training for combat and combat operations overseas,” Larkin said.

“After Ryan’s death, we learned that he suffered from an undiagnosed, severe level of microscopic brain injury uniquely related to military blast exposure.”

However, Ryan’s injury couldn’t be detected in a living person’s body, and his treatment only had been psychiatric and behavioral health-focused.

Larkin said a Manhattan Project-like approach is needed to solve the problem.

“We need a holistic approach with a heightened sense of urgency to push the scientific research. We also need to appropriately recognize invisible wounds suffered on the battlefield,” Larkin said.

“Mr. President, following this event, I’m going over to Arlington National Cemetery to tell Ryan that he’s still making a difference. That he’s still helping his boys.”

President Donald Trump signs an executive order to help reduce veteran suicides at the White House in Washington on March 5, 2019. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

‘Tragedy of Staggering Proportions’

Trump’s executive order—titled the “President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide,” or the PREVENTS initiative—endeavors to create a comprehensive network for veterans to get whatever help they need.

“The Administration’s roadmap will help create a national and local ecosystem that cultivates active engagement with each veteran, rather than a passive system wherein the onus for engagement is placed on veterans,” the White House said in a statement.

The initiative will be co-chaired at the Cabinet level by Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, along with the secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.

“Veteran suicide is a tragedy of staggering proportions,” Trump said. “Supporting veterans in distress is a critical priority for this administration.”

An average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day—around 6,000 per year. Veterans aged 55 and older account for 58 percent of the suicide deaths.

Seventy percent of veterans who committed suicide had not been involved in the VA health care system for the previous two years.

“In spite of billions of dollars of investment and a nonprofit sea of goodwill, the impact has been minimal,” a senior administration official told reporters on March 5. The official said grants would be distributed through the initiative, mostly at the state level, to help organize and align all resources available. No dollar amount was proposed, but the official said it would likely be a new appropriation.

Success in Arizona

Thomas Winkel, director of the Arizona Coalition for Military Families and part of the “Be Connected” program, said the PREVENTS initiative is “exactly what this country needs.”

Winkel said the state’s Be Connected program came about after the suicide rate among National Guard troops hit its highest rate ever in 2010.

He said a coalition of military, government, and community organizations had worked together over the next 36 months to bring the suicide rate down to zero.

The goal of Be Connected is to help veterans “upstream” by providing them assistance before they reach the point of contemplating suicide and connecting them with the services they need to alleviate life stresses, according to a statement by the organization.

“We worked with a ‘no wrong door, no wrong person’ approach. Every single person was involved,” Winkel said. “Our belief is that if everyone knows what to do, they will act.”

Trump has driven several major changes to the VA health care system since taking office, including the VA Mission Act, which gives veterans more choices for their health care.

He also secured $73.1 billion in funding for the VA to provide quality medical care, including $8.6 billion for mental health services and $206 million for suicide prevention.

“Veterans are America’s greatest national treasure,” Trump said. “We must keep our promise to those who keep us free.”

For Help

Call the Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 and press 1

Text: 838-255

Chat online: veteranscrisisline.net

Follow Charlotte on Twitter: @charlottecuthbo
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