Vet who lost military 'brothers' to post-war suicide calls for urgent change: 'We could do better'
Ahead of Memorial Day, John Byrnes of Concerned Veterans for America shines light on mental health of our heroes
This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The care of America’s heroes and mental health go hand in hand — but the help that's being offered today is reportedly not enough.
John Byrnes, deputy director of Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), spoke to Fox News Digital about the urgent need for better mental health care for veterans, coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Month and Military Appreciation Month.
Based in Oak Island, North Carolina, Byrnes has experienced multiple losses firsthand during his many years of military service, he said.
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"We need folks to stand up and to go fight in wars that are necessary — but we need to think about the casualties we cause back home," he said.
After joining the Marine Corps in the early 1990s and then taking a five-year break, Byrnes reentered the service, signing up with the Army National Guard in September 2000.
A year later, he served at Ground Zero following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, supporting the NYPD (New York Police Department) and the FDNY (Fire Department of the City of New York).
In the next decade, Byrnes was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I’ve seen loss going back to my deployment to Somalia in the '90s," he said. "I lost friends in direct combat in Iraq … Lost other friends who served at Ground Zero in Iraq … Lost friends in my unit in Afghanistan."
He added, "I’ve seen the trauma up close [and] how terrible war can be, but what’s harder is the people I’ve lost since then."
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In his work with CVA, which advocates for the prosperity of veterans and military families, he strives to reduce the number of veterans who have survived war yet choose later on, tragically, to take their own lives.
More lost by suicide than in combat
Some 8,000 military service members have died in active combat since 2001, Byrnes said.
However, in that same timeframe, more than 30,000 military veterans have died by suicide.
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"The folks I’ve lost since serving overseas are just as much a casualty of the war as the folks I lost who were there," he said.
Byrnes told the "ironic" story of how he was called in by his National Guard unit in the summer of 2015 to take a Suicide Awareness and Prevention course, a training that’s also given to first responders nationwide.
"It’s designed to help you intervene directly if someone is suicidal," he explained.
The night before he left for Fort Fisher in North Carolina, Byrnes received a phone call from a friend who told him that another friend they had served with in Iraq had committed suicide 11 years after deployment.
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"Horrible news," he said. "Every post he had on Facebook was him with his kids. He looked happy … He [had] found a great work-life balance [with the National Guard] and yet something wasn’t right."
Byrnes shared how he lost other "very close" friends he’d served with overseas to suicide, which always felt like a "punch in the gut."
Byrnes believes that Suicide Prevention and Awareness courses and similar programs — not only for first responders but also for military families — would be a good start in providing support to prevent these tragedies.
"Their spouses need this training, their brothers need this training, their fathers need this training," he said.
Living with trauma of war
As someone who has suffered from a "major depressive bout," Byrnes said veterans who struggle with their mental health tend to relive the trauma of war.
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"If there are ghosts that haunt you from war, if there are things that you've seen, things that you've done, friends you've lost — all my friends suffered from some combination of this," he said.
Byrnes added that a sense of isolation can also be debilitating for veterans who formed tight-knit relationships with their companies and fellow military members — people who became more like family.
"I'm happily married. I love my wife. We have the closest relationship you can have, but it's just different from what you feel with brothers in combat," he said.
"I had tight relationships with guys in the Marine Corps who I didn't go to combat with, and it's different from the Army National Guard guys who I did go to combat with," he said.
"One's tight; the other's just so tight, you can't imagine it."
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The high rate of suicide within the military community also has much to do with how veterans are reintegrated into civilian life, Byrnes suggested.
Calling for change in accessible veteran health care services starts with "fixing things" at the VA, according to Byrnes, since the agency has both "good" and "bad" mental health features available, he said.
"Concerned Veterans for America works to improve health care for veterans, getting them more choices out in the community, and the VA has consistently resisted letting them do that," he said.
While the U.S. is facing a mental health crisis overall, Byrnes repeated how it’s "really bad for veterans."
"Every year, there's a story of a veteran who takes [their] own life on a VA facilities property," he said. "And we could just do better as a society."
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He went on, "Americans really need to let the VA, this administration and their representatives know that veterans’ mental health is an issue that shouldn't be a political football."
One veteran suicide is ‘one too many’
In a statement sent on Thursday, the VA told Fox News Digital that one veteran suicide is "one too many" and that ending the crisis is the agency's "number-one clinical priority."
"VA offers comprehensive support that is designed to save lives and get veterans the world-class care they need, wherever they need it, whenever they need it," the agency said in its statement.
"This includes mental health care at VA facilities, counseling at Vet Centers across America, 24/7 access to qualified crisis responders by dialing 988 then press 1, and much more," the organization added. "To any veterans out there, we at VA are here for you."
Veteran suicide rates decreased in 2019 and 2020 — the most recent years with available data, the VA said.
Recently, the VA announced additional efforts as part of the Biden-Harris administration's plan to "reduce military and veteran suicide," according to the statement.
"In January, VA announced veterans in acute suicidal crisis can go to any VA or non-VA health care facility for emergent suicide care including inpatient or crisis residential care for up to 30 days and outpatient care for up to 90 days," the statement noted.
The agency also awarded $20 million through Mission Daybreak, which develops innovations to reduce veteran suicide.
"Just last week, VA announced that it is now working with more than 1,000 community-based coalitions to help prevent Veteran suicide in local communities."
The agency also awarded $20 million through Mission Daybreak, which develops innovations to reduce veteran suicide, as well as granted more than $52 million to 80 community-based organizations through the Staff Sergeant Parker Gordon Fox Suicide Prevention Grant Program.
The VA also recently conducted an "ongoing public outreach effort" on firearm suicide prevention and lethal means safety and launched a national veteran suicide awareness campaign, "Don't Wait. Reach Out."
However, Byrnes told Fox News Digital, "It shouldn't be about bureaucratic initiative. It should be about getting veterans care where and when they need it."
He disclosed that he has spoken with multiple nonprofit and for-profit mental health care providers that have the "ability to intervene." The VA, however, has yet to make referrals to them, he said.
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"Mental health care is something that our government is responsible for," he said. "And they need to do it [to achieve] the best outcomes for the veterans who are suffering."
Remembering those who died
Byrnes emphasized that Memorial Day isn’t just for remembering those who died in combat.
He said it's also for veterans who "perished from the conflict later."
"We’re strong people, but we’ve been through experiences that we just can’t explain."
He mentioned how Memorial Day grew out of the Civil War and became a unified national holiday following both world wars. But the day of remembrance has turned "formulaic" since then, Byrnes said; he believes it's strayed from the idea of memorializing the legacy of the soldiers who have lost their lives.
"It’s more than just putting a yellow sticker on the back of your car or saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’" he said. "We’re strong people, but we’ve been through experiences that we just can’t explain."
To fellow military veterans who may be struggling with their own mental well-being, Byrnes said, "We’ve got your six."
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"There’s somebody in your life who can help you and all you need to do is talk to that person," he said.
"There’s another veteran out there who’s willing to talk to you."
For more information on how to get involved in supporting America’s veterans, visit cv4a.org.