By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association

WHEELING, W.Va. – Although veteran suicide rates have decreased nationwide, the numbers are still far too high, according to West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance Cabinet Secretary Edward Diaz, who spoke before members of the West Virginia legislative Select Committee On Veterans’ Affairs during their interim meeting on Tuesday. 

“The suicide rate of veterans, nationally, has fallen from a high of 22 suicide deaths per day to nearly 17 per day in 2020,” Diaz said, citing available national data. “Although this is an improvement, I think we can all agree 17 is still way too many.” 

In West Virginia, on average, about 40-60 veterans are lost each year to suicide, Diaz continued. 

“The VA has identified that rural veterans are at greater risk of suicidality than those in urban and suburban areas,” Diaz said. “We are a highly rural state, I think that goes without saying. Veterans are nearly twice as likely as non-veterans in our state to die by suicide.” 

This may be because veterans in rural locations are further away from care and support, Diaz added, noting that more than 50 percent of West Virginia veterans who died by suicide were not enrolled in the state’s VA healthcare system. 

Diaz said one of his roles is to make sure that the state’s veterans are enrolled in the VA healthcare system, however a recent Congressional Act seeks to help veterans who need care the most. 

“In 2020, Congress passed the Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care, and Treatment Act of 2020, also known as the Veterans Compact Act. This act allows any veteran, whether they are enrolled in the VA healthcare system or not, to go to a VA healthcare system, VA hospital or a non VA emergency room for emergency suicidal care,” Diaz noted, adding that this care includes each crisis event and is paid for by the VA. 

“This is a huge thing for veterans,” Diaz said. 

Additionally, Diaz said that, along with the VA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, work is being done to gather statewide data on veteran suicides as well as the formation of a suicide prevention program that will connect veterans to the help they need. 

“This program was approved, but was unfunded in the 2021 Legislative Session. We have since received some funds through the budget process, and are continuing to build out this new program,” Diaz stated. “We believe that this new program, once fully operational, will help connect veterans with the help that they need and the resources that already exist throughout the state through a community based network approach.” 

Also speaking before the committee was Jeremy Harrison, co-founder of Helping Heroes, Inc., a Wheeling based organization founded in 2013 that seeks to address homelessness among veterans. 

“We have provided some sort of service to over 1,000 veteran families,” Harrison said. “When we talk about veteran families, we’re also talking about spouses and we are also talking about children. That’s one of the things that people don’t really think about often when they’re thinking about these veterans that you’re trying to provide services for. There are many children involved with these families that are homeless families, living in vehicles or wherever they can.” 

R.J. Konkoleski, CEO of Helping Heroes, Inc., added, “We meet veterans wherever they are.” 

Services offered include rental assistance, an emergency homeless shelter, and 10 transitional housing beds that veterans can use for up to 24 months at no cost, Konkoleski said. 

“When we meet the veterans that we serve, the first thing that we see isn’t even the veteran, it’s the human being, because that’s who’s there first, and that’s the first step in getting assistance for them,” Konkoleski said.