WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed a measure on Tuesday aimed creating a federal task force that will tackle how agencies can help prevent veteran suicides.
Trump called the epidemic of veteran suicides “a tragedy of staggering proportions” during a signing event alongside administration officials and representatives from various veterans’ groups.
“Hard to believe an average of 20 veterans and service members take their lives every single day. Who would believe that’s possible?” he said.
“Supporting veterans is a very, very important thing to me. And it’s been a very important thing for my campaign from Day 1 — and from before my campaign. But from Day 1,” Trump added.
The President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide — or the PREVENTS Initiative — creates a new Cabinet-level task force, aimed at creating a road map strategy across federal agencies to prevent veterans’ suicide. The task force, led by Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, has up to a year to submit its strategy.
The White House described the executive order as a “national call to action.”
According to the most recent VA National Suicide Data Report, the veteran suicide rate in the US increased nearly 26% between 2005 to 2016, with a slight decrease from 30.5 per 100,000 population to 30.1 per 100,000 population between 2015 and 2016.
A senior administration official said on a call with press Tuesday morning that the task force will also coordinate with Congress “to work side-by-side with state and local governments to provide resources, technical assistance, and coordination in the form of grants.”
They added that the task force intends to issue grants at the state level or potentially lower, but it’s unclear whether this will come from reallocated funds or additional funds within the federal government. The amount of funding in these grants has also not been determined.
Asked how this isn’t just government bureaucracy as usual, the senior administration official said, “the intention is not for it to be government as usual.”
“By making a national call to action and figuring out how to empower the rest of non-government to play a participating role in this by laying out a strategy, not only for the administration but also for everybody else, the intention is to have a unified front,” the official said.
B.J. Lawrence, the National Commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, an American war veterans association, was at the executive order signing. He said in a statement that his organization “agrees that addressing this issue takes a collaborative effort among federal agencies and applauds the creation of a taskforce for that purpose.”
However, he added, “the answer to the veterans suicide crisis is not in Washington, but through increased federal funding and community partnerships everyone can have an impact.”
“Through the VFW mental wellness campaign, VFW Posts throughout the world have been helping to destigmatize mental health by educating veterans and their families on the signs of emotional distress and informing veterans of resources in their local communities. The VFW stands prepared to assist in every way possible,” Lawrence said.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association CEO Jeremy Butler said he is “encouraged to see this administration finally taking steps to acknowledge this crisis.”
“More can be done and we will be watching closely to make sure the government cuts no corners while fulfilling their obligation to take care of our veterans,” he added.