by Christina Lengyel
Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee met in Chambersburg Thursday, just as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued orders at the national level to increase access to mental health care in the military.
Committee Chairman Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg, opened the meeting by optimistically noting the downward trend of suicides in recent years following a series of state initiatives meant to address mental health amongst veterans. But, he said, there’s much more work to be done.
“One veteran suicide is too many and the numbers we see in Pennsylvania constitute a tragedy,” Mastriano said. “We need our veterans to know that help is available, and suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem.”
Brig. Gen. Laura McHugh, deputy adjutant general for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, provided details on some of the programs undertaken by the state, including an anonymous surveying program that leads to customized risk management plans for individual units.
Army vet and vice chair of the committee, Sen. Tracy Pennycuick, R-Red Hill, expressed concern about the closing of in-patient facilities in Coatesville.
Brig. Gen. Maureen Weigl, deputy adjutant general for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, acknowledged the challenges posed by the closures, as well as the need for rehousing 90 in-patient veterans, most of whom are seniors unlikely to return to the workforce or find housing among family.
“If we truly are in fact soldiers for life, then we need to start having these conversations when we enlist someone in the military, that it’s OK if you’re struggling,” Pennycuick said.
Homelessness is a major risk factor for suicide. Others include substance abuse, isolation, and family and legal troubles. Peer support and initiatives like PA VetConnect and Veterans Treatment Court have been essential to serving the state’s over 800,000 veterans – 2,000 of whom are incarcerated.
Weigl emphasized the vital role of local partners and non-profit organizations in addressing the needs of Pennsylvania’s veteran community.
“There’s no right answer to healing,” she said.
Justin Slep, director of Veterans Affairs for Franklin County, described the work of his five-member staff that currently serves over 13,000 veterans. They have been successful in fundraising over $20 million and implementing successful programs like Operation Save-a-Vet Save-a-Pet.
“It’s absolutely crucial to think outside the box when it comes to mental health,” Slep said.
Local perspectives were also offered by several residents who provide the support the state relies on for its veterans.
Bruce Bartz, who leads a York-based nonprofit called Bartz Brigade, spoke about reducing stigma around mental health after his son, Trent, an Army veteran, died by suicide in 2015.
“A lot of veterans are afraid to talk about mental health issues because of the stigma,” he said. “Suicide, mental illness, depression and anxiety are the only diseases that we blame the person for having. People die from suicide just like they do from any other disease, but we blame them. One of the best ways to bring awareness to our mental health crisis is hearing testimonials like this.”
Cindy McGrew, founder of Operation Second Chance, also spoke about the material and emotional resources her organization provides.
“We just love on them,” she said. “We give them the dignity they so deserve.”
Veterans Dominique Brown and Elizabeth Cooper, from Wounded Warriors, recounted their own experiences with suicidal ideation and their paths toward peer support.
Gold Star parents Mike and Sally Wargo want to increase awareness while memorializing the estimated 168,000 veterans from all 50 states who have died by suicide.
“We need to convince veterans that it’s okay to ask for help,” Mike Wargo said.
Sens. John Kane, D-Chester, and Lindsey Williams, D-Natrona Heights, in a joint statement expressed the importance of these programs, as well as ensuring the appropriate and efficient use of money donated to the effort.
“We know from research when veterans reach out for help, they aren’t able to wait or to be referred through several different organizations or agencies,” the senators said. “We need to do more to streamline these processes and ensure that the non-profits who do this work are able to get to veterans quickly.”
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Christina Lengyel is a contributor to The Center Square.
Photo “Doug Mastriano” by Senator Doug Mastriano. Background Photo “U.S. Veterans” by Ian MacDonald.