Boom or Bust?

Congress Passes “Sweeping Bill” to Aid Veterans


The 116th Congress passed sweeping legislation reported to benefit veterans in just about every sector of the veteran community. It became law on December 17, 2020, after the president signed what many are calling a historic bill.


The major bill addresses suicide and mental health, women’s issues, military/VA sexual trauma, a new VA advisory committee for Native Americans, student veterans, homeless veterans, veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic exposures, and many other important issues.


This legislation appears impressive at first blush, mainly because it was touted so heavily in the media and by congresspersons and their staff. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. overstated the impact of the bill, saying, “There is something in this bill for just about every one of our nation’s veterans and their loved ones.”


Hold on there, Mr. Roe.


Fact is, when one carefully examines the wording, you discover that most veterans won’t even be affected by any measures in this “sweeping bill.” I queried ten close friends who are veterans, asked them to review the summaries of the various bills, and then tell me how this “sweeping bill” affects them.


Some told me:


“Not a bit.”


“I wouldn’t send my veteran wife to a VA hospital for mental-health treatment, even though she’s full of PTSD and growls at me over dinner.”


“I wish I was Native American.”


“There sure are a whole lotta reports and surveys and crap someone’s gotta do in the next coupla years. Not a whole lotta substance.”


“Meet the new bossman, same as the old bossman: a fuckin moron.”


“If they’re gonna prevent suicides with a coupla meetings and a pot of espresso, let’s give those idiots a Nobel Prize.”


The devil in the details quickly emerges and reveals the true nature behind the hype: many of the individual bills call for studies and analyses of certain issues, the results of which won’t be known for years, plus they won’t impact veterans to any measurable degree anytime soon, if at all.

Many VA studies over the decades, though they started out with good intentions, ended up nowhere and amounted to little or no aid to veterans, but they certainly made the news and got some people promoted to the next level. These often-costly studies staggered somewhere along the way, people involved lost interest or moved onto other jobs or departments, and things either blundered to a hasty finish or simply did not get done as promised or expected. Plus, there was little quality control to ensure that the end truly justified the expensive and time-consuming means it took to get there.


Additionally, there are many reports on issues to be conducted and filed to the VA secretary within the next 18-24 months. Again, the subjects of these studies appear impressive on the outside but who really knows what the effects will be in two years. By then, those of us who were initially impressed with this legislation will have forgotten all about most of these concerns, simply because we all have such a short attention span and are continually bombarded with new information, new issues, new crap to deal with that’s a whole lot worse than the old crap.


The bill also calls for small grants to be awarded to individual organizations for mental-health issues. When you closely examine the amount of funds available for these programs, they amount to “too little, too late,” especially for veterans who have died by their own hand. The efficacy of studies and investigations in the private sector also has amounted to little.


Just look at the climbing suicide rate in the US. It suggests that we are doing next to nothing to prevent it, and those who do attempt to do something are looking in all the wrong places. Suicide results from a single neurochemical or neuroanatomical factor, or a combination of the two, plus additional physical or psychological trauma, exposure to harmful chemicals, food, water, etc. The basis can also be genetic, or result from one or more of the above factors adversely affecting one’s DNA at the molecular level.


We are not taught, nor encouraged to examine, the molecular basis of suicide. Instead, we throw lots of money and time and great effort at using a behavioral approach or perhaps we throw drugs at the problem and toss “suicides” into mental-health facilities. California loves to 5150 people at risk of suicide. Florida loves to Baker-Act anyone who even utters the word suicide.


Yet our elected officials propose the following paper tigers:

  • Financial assistance to certain entities to provide or coordinate the provision of suicide prevention services for eligible individuals and their families.
  • Analysis on feasibility and advisability of the Department of Veterans Affairs providing certain complementary and integrative health services.
  • Pilot program to provide veterans access to complementary and integrative health programs through animal therapy, agritherapy, sports and recreation therapy, art therapy, and posttraumatic growth programs.
  • Department of Veterans Affairs study of all-cause mortality of veterans, including by suicide, and review of staffing levels of mental health professionals.
  • Comptroller General report on management by Department of Veterans Affairs of veterans at high risk for suicide.


From the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs website:


Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) announced the Committee’s new strategy to address veteran suicide, which is inspired by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Seven Core Strategies For Suicide Prevention. Together with VA and VSOs, the Committee will create a comprehensive public health approach to address veteran suicide.


Takano said, “We need a holistic approach to the public health crisis of veteran suicide. If we’re going to make a dent in this crisis, we need to examine every angle, factor, and intersection that leads to suicide itself. That means adopting an evidenced-based model to ensure we are addressing factors from housing insecurity to emergency mental health care access to facility infrastructure, all of which can affect a veteran in crisis.  By realigning our focus under a proven framework, the Committee believes we can achieve smart, meaningful change that will reduce veteran suicides.”


The Committee’s organizing framework will work to achieve seven goals: strengthen economic supports, strengthen access & delivery of care, create protective environments, promote connectedness, teach coping and problem-solving skills, identify and support people at risk, and lessen harms & prevent future risks for all veterans, not just those already in VA care. 


As part of this effort, Chairman Takano has directed this Committee to hold hearings, roundtables, briefings, and produce legislation aligned to these seven core objectives.


Chairman Takano said his committee’s top priority is veteran suicide. Uh-huh.


Published and spoken words don’t match the actions taken by his committee or the VA. They even underreport the number of veteran suicides each day, stating only 17. The Senate Committee of Veterans Affairs claims more than 20 veteran suicides a day. The disparity suggests the House and Senate don’t corroborate their research results.


I find the whole affair embarrassing, especially since it was published for the public to view and study. It begs the question: what other statistics and results of research and other work are misinterpreted and/or misreported? Where is the adult supervision in the House and Senate?


Here’re the real numbers: there are about 30 veteran suicides every day across the nation and abroad. We are not going to prevent veteran suicides by taking some “holistic approach” or holding endless House and Senate hearings that feature talking heads who award themselves with pay raises, secret bonuses, and much self-congratulations and self-adulation.


The cause for these skyrocketing suicides, in veterans and civilians, goes much deeper than what Takano and his colleagues claim are the causes. Fact is, they aren’t even addressing the underlying causes, because to do so would put a lot of high-ranking people out of a job, if not put them in a supermax with one hour of daily recreation.

Suicide isn’t the only casualty of war in this legislative game. Women in the military have been subjected to harassment, assault, rape and murder for decades, yet almost nothing has been done to prevent any of it. Most of these crimes have gone no further than the desk of a commanding officer who, because of some institutional tradition or convention or unwritten unit’s law, ignored the crime, swept it under a very dirty rug, and even reprimanded the female soldiers, sailors and airmen who filed the initial complaint.


How has Congress responded to this terrible epidemic? They added provisions that will provide physical space at each VA facility for someone (hopefully an expert psychologist or social worker on women’s issues) to address these concerns, yet upon close examination the funding amounts to pennies thrown at a moving freight train.


This bill, at least in writing, seeks to address the thousands of complaints of military sexual trauma that were ignored or dismissed by the VA. That sobering fact, alone, should make you cry.


Congress ordered that the VA establish a dedicated Office of Women’s Health, and provided $20 million to convert certain areas at VA hospitals to “women’s health spaces.” Exactly what this means is open to interpretation at this point, and while $20 million sounds like a lot of money, when you consider the large number of VA hospitals that must be retrofitted, this funding falls short.


What do Congress and the VA hope to gain here, offering such a paltry sum? Don’t they know that our female veterans are the fastest-growing group in the military, now numbering nearly half a million?  


The results suggest neither entity is willing to do much at all to prevent the harassment, assault, rape and murder of female active-duty personnel and veterans. Secretary Wilkie himself has been accused of not only ignoring pleas to address this important issue, but also covering up formal complaints.


Worse, he personally directed his underlings to discredit Navy Reserve Lt. Andrea Goldstein, a senior policy adviser on the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Women Veterans Task Force who, in September 2019, reported an assault at the Washington, DC VA Medical Center.


Many veterans groups marched on the Hill and demanded that Wilkie be fired immediately. As of December 20, 2020, Wilkie is still in office, being protected by the same people who ignore the plight of our beloved veterans.


What happens to our female veterans subjected to harassment, assault, rape and murder, not to mention the aftereffects of war and typical non-combat service, with their host of injuries and other physical and mental issues? The survivors suffer horribly from PTSD and other forms of trauma, they fall into drinkin and drugging, they become destitute and homeless. They kill themselves.


So our brave and benevolent Congress and VA decided to expand the “capabilities of Women Veterans Call Center to include text messaging.” And required the VA “website to provide information on services available to women veterans.”


They also mandated to draw up a “complete an analysis and report on its programs that provide assistance to women veterans who are homeless or precariously housed to identify the areas in which such programs are failing to meet the needs of such women” and to “annually report on the use of VA health care by women veterans.”


Are you detecting a pattern here?


Our Native American veterans have been treated pretty much like our beautiful female veterans: these brave souls have been ignored since the Civil War, when they were seen as enemies of the state, though many played an important role on both sides of the conflict. Not much has changed since then, although Congress ordered “advisory committees” for Native Americans to be installed, to study the challenges faced by these veterans.


Exactly what does this mean, “study the challenges faced by Native American veterans”?


I’m with you: I have no clue, but if this study is like many others conducted by the VA over the years, it may go the way of the dodo bird.


Our homeless veteran population is growing every year, and many of those beloved vets are suffering from PTSD and other forms of physical and mental trauma, with no end in sight. Many of those veterans are too ill to ask for assistance, so they fall through the cracks of the VA and civilian healthcare systems. How many of our beloved veterans become homeless through no fault of their own, then are lost forever in mental illness or other physical disability?


And what will come of those veterans exposed to toxic fumes and smoke from burn pits and other releases of harmful chemicals while on the job? They have had to fight the VA since the first Gulf War, when toxic agents caused birth defects in children of veterans exposed to certain chemical agents in Iraq and other areas.


The current bill seems to address some of these issues but focuses more on doing more studies than actually aiding and treating veterans and their families.


One thing is certain: Congress and the VA are very impressed with themselves and are glad-handing and clapping many a back, having worked two arduous years in the muddy trenches on this legislation. I’m wondering what good will come of it. Let’s chat again in early 2023 about the VA’s progress.



AUTHOR: Bo Riley reports on issues of interest to veterans and active-duty personnel. He’s a former Army Ranger with the 1st Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and lives in the Tampa Bay ar