WASHINGTON — Suicide prevention is the No. 1 legislative priority this year for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says Paul Rieckhoff, the groupís founder and CEO.
His New York-based organization, with 150,000 members, also supports the effort by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to have military prosecutors rather than commanders make decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assault cases in the armed forces.
Gillibrand expects a Senate vote on her proposal in the next couple of weeks.
As chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, Gillibrand also plans to convene a hearing this winter on the link between sexual assaults in the military and suicides.
Rieckhoff, 39, served in Iraq as an Army first lieutenant in 2003-2004. He also served at Ground Zero after the 2001 terrorist attacks as a first responder for the Army National Guard.
Rieckhoff joined Gillibrand earlier this week to talk about military personnel and veterans issues.
Question: Why is suicide your No. 1 issue?
Rieckhoff: The suicide rate is out of control. Weíre losing roughly 22 veterans per day to suicide. On my way over here today, I got another note from a military family that is struggling with a suicidal veteran. We are losing more people now to suicide than to combat.
So weíve to get Congress and this entire town laser-focused on that. If we were losing this many folks to some kind of weapons systems from al-Qaida, the Pentagon would be bending over backwards and everyone would be rallying to attack it.
I think it can be a bipartisan issue. Maybe if thereís a silver lining in an issue like suicide, itís that we can galvanize people to work across partisan lines. They can do programs to reduce the stigma. They can increase the number of mental health workers.
Gillibrand: We are going to focus our next hearing on how many of these suicides are sexual assault-related. How many are caused by rape and sexual trauma that goes unreported because of the stigma and the fear of retaliation.
Q: Why is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America supporting Sen. Gillibrandís proposal?
Rieckhoff: IAVA represents a different generation. Our membership is about 12 percent female, which is significantly higher than the older veterans groups. But itís not just a womenís issue. Men are also are impacted by military sexual assault. Across our generation, we see an urgency.
Q: What is this new program you have to assist veterans?
Rieckhoff: Itís called the Rapid Response Referral Program. We call it RIP because it rips through the bureaucracy that is overwhelming our vets across New York State and across the country. A vet who transitioned home from Iraq or Afghanistan anytime in the last 10 years, they can call IAVA and weíll help them with housing, mental health, employment or their GI Bill benefits.
Q: Your group wants a federal law that would require every state to let veterans and their family members attend college at in-state tuition rates, regardless of where they live. Why are you pushing for that?
Rieckhoff: Itís a huge issue for our population. Weíve got to be able to accommodate folks who are moving around. Veterans are constantly coming back and forth. You have to set them up for success so they can go to school. The GI Bill is the best transitional program in the country. The GI Bill is transferable to a son or daughter. It really can provide tremendous upward mobility for a whole family.
Q: The backlog of disability claims has been a longstanding issue for veterans. Has the situation improved recently?
Rieckhoff: The VA has pushed forward, but they havenít really made any further progress since October. It hasnít improved nearly enough. If you live in New York and file a claim, you are waiting sometimes over a year. Itís a broken system. New York has become an example of how the backlog is bad. You can file your claim online, but you may still get caught in that paperwork backlog.