Maj. Gen. Mark Graham stood in front of the handful of people gathered in a Senate office building Tuesday and recited a phone number.
"855-838-8255. Don't wait. Don't wait. Call," Graham said. He was listing the number of Vets4Warriors, a 24/7 call center where veterans provide support to service members and their families. In 2003, Graham's his son, Kevin, who had planned on becoming an Army doctor, committed suicide. Fewer than nine months later, his other son, Jeff, was killed by an improvised explosive device while serving in Iraq.
"I wish my boys had a phone number to call," Graham said Tuesday morning at a panel in the Russell Senate Office Building which focused on preventing military suicide on the eve of Veterans Day.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., joined Graham, Bill Rausch, the political director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Yochi Dreazen, author of "The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War," at the 8 a.m. event.
Donnelly called for action to address the issue of military suicide. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs , an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
"It is heartbreaking and it has to end," Donnelly said.
He noted that the annual defense authorization bill includes a "care package" related to veterans' mental health issues, which involves certifying practitioners who are veteran-friendly, providing training on suicide risk recognition and establishing an online registry of certified practitioners that veterans can access.
The package builds on Donnelly's bill known as the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act, which passed in 2014 and provided for annual mental health assessments for veterans.
With a Senate vote on the annual defense bill just a few hours away, Donnelly knocked twice on the podium and said, "god willing," it will pass.
Rausch, who served 17 months in Iraq, said Congress can take additional actions to address suicide rates among veterans, including extending the time a veteran can enroll in VA health care from five to 15 years after his or her service. But he also called on Congress to be leaders in their community when it comes to addressing the stigma surrounding suicide.
“They can use the right language. I never knew anything about using the right language until my sister died by suicide," Rausch said. "They can speak intelligently about it. They can share their stories. And so there's the policy, but, again good policy is going to impact the culture and the community aspect as well.”
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