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Millions of suicide prevention dollars unspent by VA

TUCSON – Military members and Veterans are killing themselves at an alarming rate.

A rate that is much higher than the general population.

Making matters even worse is the Veterans Administration that didn’t spend millions of dollars on suicide prevention funds.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators went to the local VA to find out what they’re doing to make sure Veterans in Southern Arizona are getting the life-saving help they need.

James Allmann is one of many military veterans who has contemplated suicide.

“I know that we’re losing 22, 23 a day, veterans to suicide, and a lot of those people I know, I know personally can be helped. I was at the verge when I came here,” Allman told the News 4 Tucson Investigators.

Allmann was just 19 years old when he deployed overseas to fight in the Gulf War where he says the constant barrage of Scud missiles was nearly too much to handle.

“It was four or five times a day, for about four months. And after a while you were like, you know, hey let’s just get this done,” Allmann said.

“You’re looking at your life going by every 30-seconds. You’re just like, wow, you know? It’s tough,” he added.

So tough, Allmann says he often thought, he wouldn’t mind getting hit.

Allmann told the News 4 Tucson Investigators that he has high praise for the mental health professionals he works with at the VA.

He also says that they are extremely outnumbered. “We have seven psychiatrists on staff, and we’re allocated for 15. Where’s that money going?”

That’s the question many people are asking.

According to a Government Accountability Office report, officials with the VA only spent $57,000 dollars or less than 1 percent of the money set aside for outreach and public awareness related to veteran’s suicide prevention last fiscal year.

That didn’t sit well with US Senator Martha McSally. “The fact that the bureaucrats failed to use the resources we gave them in order to reach out to these hurting veterans is unacceptable,” said the Republican Senator from Arizona.

McSally serves on the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs. She told the News 4 Tucson Investigators in her first cabinet meeting that she spoke with Robert Wilkie, the New Secretary of the VA.

Wilkie has said the suicide prevention funds were not spent because the department’s top suicide prevention post was vacant for almost a year.

“Give me a break. You know, where was the deputy, was there not one person coming to work every single day in the organization saying, ‘excuse me we need to make sure we’re outreaching and getting to these veterans.’ Was everybody asleep at the switch?” asked McSally.

As a veteran herself, this topic is personal for Senator McSally.

“I have friends that I’ve served with who are no longer here because of this issue, so this is very real to me. If there’s one more thing that we can do you know to help a veteran who’s struggling because they served, because they served, because of the wounds of war that they brought back and somehow you have bureaucrats that are not using the resources that we’re giving them in order to save their lives that’s unacceptable and this is very personal to me,” McSally said.

Cara Gaukler is a Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Tucson VA.

She tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators that they are working hard to get the word out that help is available.

“Across the VHA we have approximately 764 suicide attempts every month so it’s a very large number. Nationwide we have approximately 20 suicides every day and so only six of those 20 are actually receiving services through the VA,” Gaukler said.

Gaukler told the News 4 Tucson Investigators that the Tucson VA has many resources, but many Veterans aren’t aware of the help that is available.

“We don’t know every single veteran that isn’t engaged here so we to get help from the community and partners to just spread the word about suicide prevention, how to get someone treatment and what are those warning signs and symptoms,” Gaulker said.

Allmann now spends time helping other veterans who have thought about taking their lives.

He’s been there so he knows what others may be going through.

“These programs do work, and you just have to be willing. It’s all about willingness, and if you’re willing to kill yourself, you should be willing to try to save yourself, because you are worth saving,” Allmann says. “There is nothing that says you should go out and try to do something like that ever. Not ever.”

Senator McSally tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators she’s going to follow through and make sure the new leadership at the VA is doing its job and being more effective in getting the word out that help is available.

If you are a veteran or if you know a veteran who is contemplating suicide, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-274-8255 and PRESS 1, send a text message to 838255 or chat online. 

Paul Birmingtham

Paul Birmingtham

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