Afghanistan vet testifies about veteran suicides: ‘I know of countless suicide attempts’

WASHINGTON — For veterans like Nick Armendariz, trauma from combat continued long after returning to civilian life.

“I hung up my uniform. I lost my identity, my family and my tribe,” Armendariz testified before a House panel.

Armendariz is an Army veteran and served three combat tours in Afghanistan. He told members of Congress he battled with post-traumatic stress disorder once he came home and got into legal trouble, which led him to consider taking his own life.

“I felt as though I didn’t want to be here any longer and considered an alternatively morbid path,” Armendariz said.

Armendariz added that he was grateful a prosecutor sent him to veterans’ treatment court, giving him what he considers to be a second chance. Sadly, he said, far too many of those he served alongside with weren’t as fortunate.

“I know of countless suicide attempts and four men with whom I served were lost to suicide,” Armendariz said.

His testimony was part of a hearing with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Wednesday focused on preventing veteran suicide. Lawmakers and witnesses said preventing veteran suicide is a long term and on-going commitment that involves everything from making sure essential needs like housing and food are covered for our vets to making sure they have access to mental healthcare treatment.

“Stable housing is suicide prevention,” said Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “Financial security is suicide prevention. Food is suicide prevention.”

Testimony and questions from lawmakers also pointed to the added stress on Afghanistan vets following the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“As the world watched the U.S. withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the collapse of the Afghan government and the return of the Taliban rule, some veterans questioned the worth of the work they had done during their deployments,” said Tammy Barlet, the Deputy Legislative Director for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).

“Veterans who served in Afghanistan and even those who served elsewhere have been under immense stress,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Representatives from the VA told lawmakers the number of veteran suicides did drop in 2019 compared to previous years. But even with progress, there’s still a long way to go. More than 6,200 U.S. vets died by suicide in 2019.

“Suicide is preventable,” said Dr. Kameron Matthews, the Assistant Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Services for the Veterans Health Administration. “Suicide requires a public health approach combining clinical and community-based strategies.”

Veterans’ groups called on Congress to demand greater accountability from the VA services meant to help our vets.

“We must demand a more thorough evaluation of all VA programs,” Barlet said.

Armendariz urged lawmakers to push for the VA to release more specific data on veteran suicides.

“Our community needs to further analyze this data and study the risk factors that combat deployment contributes to veteran suicides,” Armendariz said.