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Petition Seeks Revolutionary Overhaul Of Veteran Services To Combat Military Suicide

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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A veteran advocacy group is pushing Congress for an overhaul of post-combat programs in an effort to tackle the alarmingly high suicide rate among veterans.

Roughly 20 veterans take their own lives everyday in America due to difficulties associated to adjusting to civilian life post-service. The suicide rate among veterans is nearly double the rate seen among the general population in America. Stop Soldier Suicide, a national non-profit organization, is gathering signatures on a “unite for life” petition to have Congress adopt their Reverse Boot Camp program aimed at helping service members adapt to life after the military.

The services would include counseling, mentorship, job training and are designed to remove the stigma of mental health conditions in the military.

“We have a deliberate program that turns a high school graduate into a warrior, but we lack the commensurate program to transform these warriors back into civilians,” Army Lt. Col. Jason Roncoroni (ret.), executive director of Stop Soldier Suicide, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The Reverse Boot Camp provides the same structure we use to prepare men and women for military service to better prepare them for life after the military.”

The Reverse Boot Camp program would mandate all exiting military personnel to undergo a mental health evaluation by a behavioral therapist to determine the individual’s specific needs. This also forces members who need help but might not seek any themselves get the necessary treatment.

“Mental health stigma is one of the main reasons service members don’t seek help,” said Roncoroni, a former soldier with 21 years of active duty service. “If everyone’s got to go, then there is no stigma.”

The proposal makes use of existing non-profit, corporate, and government agencies that already work with veterans on a wide variety of post combat issues. Activists want to leverage the services these groups provide in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a proactive process for getting veterans life saving assistance, rather than leaving the decision to seek professional help to the individual.

“Similar to Veteran Affairs expanding its teaming and partnership arrangements, [Lt. Col.] Roncoroni proposes that the Reverse Boot Camp forms a coalition of institutional, non-profit, and community programs to help Service members achieve their full potential,”  Dr. Caitlin Thompson, director of suicide prevention for the VA, told TheDCNF. “This effort highlights how everyone can step forward and take an active role in preventing Veteran suicide in their communities.”

A linchpin of the program is a one year long mentorship program for veterans that helps them transition to post-combat life. Another key to the program is helping veterans turn their military experience into marketable job skills. Stop Soldier Suicide wants to ensure veterans get the proper civilian accreditation for any technical and managerial skills developed during their service.

Stop Soldier Suicide launched their petition Sept. 1, at the start of Suicide Prevention Month, and wants to reach 263,000 signatures, representing the number of veteran lives lost to suicide since 1979. Activists have already reached out to members of Congress to begin a bipartisan dialogue on the proposal.

“Suicide among veterans is a crisis that is more pressing now than ever before,” Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa told TheDCNF. “Each day, approximately 20 veterans tragically commit suicide. Female veterans commit suicide at 6 times the rate of non-military females. We as a country must do more to help those who sacrificed so much for our freedoms.”

Representatives of Stop Soldier Suicide said they will continue their push to reform post-combat services in Congress this Fall. The organization’s ultimate goal is to have Congress fund a pilot program in next summer’s National Defense Authorization Act to study the impact their proposal will have on service members. The pilot program would go into effect in 2018 and allow officials to study the effectiveness of a national program.

Roncoroni said many government officials support the idea of reverse boot camp but think it is too expensive to implement. Stop Soldier Suicide argues the fiscal burden currently falls hardest on the veteran and their families, which is unacceptable to Roncoroni. The economic impact of the current post-combat system on veterans is roughly $50 billion when factoring in the average cost of suicide, mental health support, substance abuse, and dissolution of the family, according to the group’s research.

“You go into basic training and they teach you, they indoctrinate you, they give you physical fitness training and then they send you off to school for a specialty,” Roncoroni told TheDCNF. “What we are trying to say is you need the same kind of a program serving different functions for service members exiting the military.”

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