By Congresswoman Julia Brownley 

Originally published in the Ventura County Star

In 1973, the United States eliminated the draft and moved to an all-volunteer force. Our men and women have served multiple deployments and extended missions in Iraq and Afghanistan honorably, but what are we doing to properly support our heroes when they return to their communities?

Most veterans have been able to return to their families and contribute to their communities, but some struggle to readjust to life at home. Sometimes this struggle heartbreakingly leads to depression, hopelessness and ultimately suicide. Tragically, the suicide epidemic among the men and women who have served our country has increased significantly. One life lost, unnecessarily to suicide, is one life too many.

Congress worked to address the veteran suicide rate by passing legislation last year that improved access to mental health and suicide prevention programs. I had the opportunity to be at the White House while President Obama signed the Clay Hunt SAV Act that Congress passed in 2015. It mandates for the first time that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) conduct annual evaluations on the effectiveness of its mental health and suicide prevention programs.

Last June, VA researchers discovered that women who have served in the military are nearly six times as likely as non-veteran women to commit suicide. And, for women veterans ages 18-29, that number is even higher — they are nearly 12 times as likely to commit suicide.

This increase in female veteran suicides is extremely alarming, especially when you consider that in the non-veteran population, men are nearly four times as likely to commit suicide as women. Women veterans, on the other hand, are committing suicide at nearly the same rate as their male counterparts, and we need to understand why and what we can do to help.

Advocates like Mary Bandini, a combat veteran and Simi Valley VFW Post commander, believe that there are reasons for these high numbers. She is concerned the VA does not have adequate facilities and services for women vets and their health needs. Often, women cannot receive the combat related trauma therapy they need, because there are not enough women in one location to support a group.

Commander Bandini explained how these obstacles can leave women feeling isolated and removed from the team that vowed to never leave “a man” behind. For too long, she says, a blind eye was turned to the concept of suicide due to military traumas, regardless of gender.

Mary’s personal experience makes it clear that we must deepen our understanding of why female veteran suicide follows very different patterns when compared to other women, or male veterans.

I am proud to report that the House of Representatives passed my bill, The Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act, with overwhelming bipartisan support last week. This legislation is an important first step to reduce female veteran suicide rates, and to help the VA and policymakers have a better understanding of where to focus resources for desperately at-risk women veterans. My bill is supported by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Service Women’s Action Network, and the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Now that it has passed the U.S. House of Representatives, I am working closely with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who have introduced companion legislation in the Senate. Together, we will work to make this bill law, and in doing so, be able to save the lives of many women veterans.

Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, is a member of Congress, representing the 26th District.

Veterans and their family members and friends can connect with VA responders 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling the toll-free Veterans Crisis hotline (800) 273-8255, and then pressing 1. VA also has a women Veterans Call Center: 1-855-VA-WOMEN (1-855-829-6636).

If you or a veteran in your family are having difficulty accessing your VA benefits or services, call Brownley’s District Office at (805) 379-1179 and ask to speak to one of her caseworkers.

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