VA chief seeks overhaul of suicide prevention unit that’s mired in data inconsistencies, misunderstanding

Cole Lyle, a Marine combat veteran who resides in Alexandria, Virginia, was on the brink of suicide shortly after his honorable discharge in 2014.

Suddenly unemployed, in the midst of a divorce and having been discharged for an injury he sustained, Lyle said he found himself in “a pretty low place” and that he “felt disconnected from the guys I had served with.”

He also felt at the time that his family did not understand the severity of what he was going through as he coped with post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, and alcohol abuse.

“I was, admittedly, drinking too much,” he told Fox News Digital in a phone interview. “I had a gun, and was about one pound of trigger pull away from shooting myself in the head.”

Thankfully, a fellow Marine arrived with movies and food and stayed with Lyle throughout that fateful night. The next morning, Lyle awoke with a renewed sense of calm and purpose.

“The only thing I can really attribute [it] to is divine intervention, because I was clearer than I had been in a long time,” he said.

“My focus went from, ‘Why do I have nothing?’ to ‘I have the opportunity to do anything.'”

Today, Lyle is the executive director of Mission Roll Call, a veteran advocacy group that seeks to cut through bureaucratic red tape through the use of modern technology. Lyle had previously worked with the U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs (VA) and the American Legion before joining the Georgia-based Mission Roll Call in Oct. of 2021.

The group actively polls veterans nationwide to gauge interest and prioritize their concerns on various issues to be brought forth in Washington.

“Our goal is suicide prevention, and we do that by advocating to Congress, advocating to the White House and to the VA for policies that would improve the quality of life for veterans and ultimately lower the suicide rate,” he said.

“Right now, the VA’s statistics [are that] 17 veterans a day are taking their lives — which is 6,205 a year. It’s way too many.”

Lyle believes the VA must undergo a fundamental change in the way it addresses the major issue of veteran suicide.

“The best way to tackle [the issue of suicide and mental health] is by advocating for policies to improve the quality of life for all veterans,” Lyle said, “whether or not they’re using VA — whether or not they’re engaged with a local veteran service organization that’s providing those direct services.”

He added, “Only 50% of veterans in the country — of the 18 million-plus veterans in the country — use the VA. So there’s half the population that’s not engaging with them at all, or [with] a veteran service organization.”

The VA, Lyle argued, seems to view the epidemic of suicide “primarily through the lens of mental health.”

“I think that is a reactionary and failed approach,” said Lyle.

“If you look at the status quo and the amount of money that the VA has put into it over the last four years — it’s just not working,” he added.

“The [Department of Defense] and the VA need to be much more proactive in how they address this issue,” he said. “There needs to be more collaboration between those two agencies to effectively address this problem. Because they haven’t done so, and they haven’t really worked well together.”

A spokesperson for the VA responded to Fox News Digital in defense of the status quo.

“The purpose of VA’s National Suicide Prevention report is to count every veteran suicide so we can prevent every veteran suicide,” said Joe Williams, a public affairs specialist at the department.

“Ending veteran suicide and saving lives is our top clinical priority at VA, and we take every step possible to make sure that our veteran suicide data is accurate — because the first step to solving this problem is understanding it.”

Williams added, “The bottom line is this: One veteran suicide is one too many, and VA will continue to accurately measure veteran suicide so we can end veteran suicide.”

However,  Fox News Digital reported just last week on a study by the All Secure Foundation which found the VA may be underreporting suicides by as much as 37 percent.

The Department of Defense (DoD) had this to say:

“We work very well together with the VA and have significant synergies and joint efforts in suicide prevention,” Maj. Charlie Dietz, a DoD spokesman, told Fox News Digital. He cited the Hannon Act; the Suicide Data Repository and the Veterans Crisis Line/Military Crisis Line; and 9-8-8 efforts.

“Additionally, DoD and VA collaborate on federal-wide committees and groups, such as the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, the Federal Working group for suicide prevention [and] the Interagency Task Force for Military and Veteran Suicide,” Dietz said.

Lyle responded to the DoD’s claims, saying, “If you talk to any separated service member, the DoD and the VA still have a lot of joint work to do on meaningful transition assistance and electronic health record management, to make reintegration into civilian life as seamless as possible — and hopefully decrease the rate of veteran suicide,” he said.

Lyle explained that many veterans of Afghanistan, including friends of his, feel worsening hopelessness in the wake of the Biden regime’s deadly surrender to the Taliban in August of 2021.

“[They were] questioning, ‘What was it for?’ and I could see the writing on the wall,” he said.

For himself, Lyle has at least one partner to help him with his post-traumatic stress: a German shepherd named Kaya.

He said she “was trained to wake me up from nightmares and do what’s called ‘animal-assisted intervention’ when I was having anxiety attacks,” he said.

“That was hugely helpful for me,” he told the outlet.

He concluded there is strength in numbers to be found for suffering veterans.

“I think the more you empower community organizations to go find veterans and to work with them, and create those connections that they lost after they transitioned out of the military — I think that’s a realistic and effective path to order,” he said.

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