Federal VA Secretary visits OSDRI, calls veteran suicide data ‘startling’


The federal government estimates more than 17 American veterans took their own lives each day of 2021. And more than 100 more veterans committed suicide in 2021, than the year before.

The suicide rates are even more staggering for the nation’s servicewomen.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the suicide data — startling,” U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Denis R. McDonough leaned over and said to Operation Stand Down Rhode Island (OSDRI) Executive Director Erik B. Wallin outside the organization’s food pantry in Johnston.

“Our most recent numbers, for 2021, came out last week,” McDonough said.

The nation lost 6,392 veterans to suicide in 2021 (an increase of 114 over 2020).

Sobering Data

After his tour, a confidential phone call and brief discussion held inside the OSDRI HQ, McDonough discussed the “startling” data.

“It showed an increase from 2020 to 2021,” he explained. “What I was mentioning to Erik, is one particularly staggering data point is that suicide among women veterans was up from 2020. So this underscores the need for us to re-double our efforts and to continue to invest in local partners, like Operation Stand Down Rhode Island.”

Last week, the VA released the 2023 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.

“The increase in Veteran suicides seen in 2021, compared to 2020, was particularly seen in women Veterans, for whom there was a 24.1% increase in the age-adjusted suicide rate, compared to an increase of 6.3% among male Veterans,” according to the report.

McDonough and Wallin led a group inside the OSDRI food pantry. This time of year, the pantry’s packed with food for veterans and their families. The shelves often go bare following the holidays (OSDRI collects food donations year-round).

President Joe Biden’s cabinet secretary looked around the OSDRI facility.

“What really stands out is the generosity of Rhode Islanders,” he said, describing the heart of the organization. “The concern of Rhode Islanders for their veterans, and in particular … Rhode Island veterans looking out for their brothers and sisters in arms.”

A group of politicians and local officials — including Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, OSDRI Founder and Board President Anthony DeQuattro, Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr., Rhode Island District Court Chief Judge Jeanne E. LaFazia and Rhode Island Director of Veterans Affairs Kasim J. Yarn — met McDonough at the OSDRI headquarters off Hartford Avenue in Johnston.

“We just got an opportunity to meet many of the staff,” McDonough said. “Mr. Magaziner, Chairman Reed and I got a chance to spend time seeing much of the facility, including the food pantry, which doubles as a dental clinic. At every place in there I see a really remarkable manifestation of partnership between the state Department of Veterans Affairs, the state Congressional delegation, (and) the federal VA … so I’m proud of that.”

Record of Healing

OSDRI is the Ocean State’s “primary nonprofit resource for homeless and at-risk veterans,” founded in 1993. Their mission is simple: “Help veterans secure stable housing, employment, basic human needs, legal and benefit assistance.”

“OSDRI is honored the U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs, accompanied by Sen. Reed, chose to visit OSDRI’s Veteran Service Center and Johnston Headquarters,” Wallin said. “We are excited to share with the Secretary, and Sen. Reed, the innovative programs OSDRI has developed over the years which have made the organization the leading non-profit provider of supportive services for low-income and at-risk veterans in the state.”

The organization not only offers Rhode Island veterans access to a food pantry program, but also pro bono legal services, rental assistance, and an employment program. OSDRI owns and operates 88 units of housing for Rhode Island veterans. The group estimates they help, on average, around 2,500 Ocean State veterans annually.

“We work closely with the VA at both the local and national level in delivering assistance with housing, temporary financial assistance, benefits for service-connected disabilities and more,” Wallin said. “For our staff, almost all of whom are veterans themselves, this type of visit is an affirmation of the dedicated work they do in changing and sometimes even saving the lives of their fellow sister and brother veterans.”

Winter is Coming

 OSDRI’s staff lined up shivering in the driveway as they awaited McDonough’s arrival. The New England air is cooling fast, and those living unsheltered have run out of time.

According to OSDRI, McDonough’s visit was part of his “commitment to work with community partners to end Veteran homelessness.”

The VA has set “ending veteran homelessness” as a priority, claiming they’re “on track to meet (their) goal of housing 38,000 homeless veterans for the year.”

“Operation Stand Down does very meaningful and (effective) work for veterans in not just Johnston, but the entire state,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. “I’m happy the Secretary was able to come up to Rhode Island and give Operation Stand Down the recognition and praise it rightfully deserves. Johnston’s had a long-standing relationship with Operation Stand Down and will continue to have that strong relationship going forward.”

McDonough stood next to DeQuattro, Wallin, Reed, Yarn and Magaziner to answer a few questions. He addressed the nation’s veteran suicide crisis.

“Because of very generous investments from Congress — Sen. Reed has been pushing us on this for a long time, active duty and veterans — we’ve seen innovative new interventions in suicide prevention,” McDonough said. He looked to Judge LaFazia and told her the VA relies on “great partners” in the justice system.

He said there’s a “correlation between homelessness and suicidality” and a “correlation between justice system involvement and suicidality.”

“These kind of partnerships go a long way,” McDonough said, referring to OSDRI’s work helping veterans iron out legal issues with the courts.

Congressional Help

Reed addressed the nation’s efforts to prevent veteran suicides.

“One of the innovations we adopted is the 988 telephone number,” Reed said. “If you’re a veteran, and you call … you’re connected to a counselor who’s trained to deal with many of the problems veterans face. That’s one thing we hope over time will improve these statistics, which at this point are unacceptable.”

According to Reed’s office, “as the head of the VA, McDonough is responsible for caring for some 9 million veterans nationwide, including some 800,000 aging Vietnam War veterans.”

OSDRI’s also doing its part to address the needs of former servicewomen, specifically.

“Next week we’ll open a new facility in Woonsocket, to add 10 more beds,” Wallin said. “We currently have six for female veterans in transitional housing. This is a population that needs the assistance. We’re committed to doing it.”

On Monday, Reed escorted McDonough throughout Rhode Island “for a series of meetings with local veterans, support organizations, and VA professionals.” After OSDRI, they traveled to the Providence VA Medical Center.

Reed’s office noted that the federal “VA employs more than 377,000 people and supports 170 medical centers and more than 1,000 outpatient sites nationwide.”

“Today’s sessions gave us numerous takeaways that we can bring back to Washington and continue to build on for the benefit of Rhode Island’s veterans,” Reed said in a press release later that day.

Existing, But Worsening Problem

OSDRI has a long track record of reaching out to the nation’s fastest-growing group of veterans — servicewomen.

“(Since) Tony DeQuattro founded the Holly Charette House, which was the first 10 years ago, there hasn’t been a night when the beds have not been full,” Wallin said. “So we’re going to commit ourselves again, to helping more of our sisters who have served alongside all of us in the last 20-25 years.”

Reed served in the U.S. Army and Wallin served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force.

DeQuattro served in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 2010, he named the “Holly Charette House” after Lance Corporal Holly A. Charette, of Cranston, who was the nation’s first female Marine killed in Iraq.

McDonough said the “fastest growing cohort for veterans in VA are women veterans.” While the overall number of U.S. veterans has been shrinking nationwide, the percentage of women in the military has soared.

Women veterans are also using guns to end their lives at rates far outpacing civilian women (and male veterans).

According to last week’s VA report, “the firearm suicide rate among Veteran women was 281.1% higher than that of non-Veteran women, while the firearm suicide rate among Veteran men was 62.4% higher than for non-Veteran men.”

“We at VA have to be better prepared,” McDonough said.

Thirteen years ago, when DeQuattro announced he was opening the Holly Charette House, he addressed the contract that servicemen and women enter with their (sometimes grateful) nation.

“When you sign on the dotted line, you’re promised a lot of things by the government,” DeQuattro told the Johnston Sun Rise in 2010. “When you come home — good luck. It’s an absolute crime that there has to be a homeless veteran in the United States of America.”

Waiting for McDonough to arrive, DeQuattro smoked and extinguished a cigar. Following the visit, he stuck to his matter-of-fact no-nonsense style of assessing government help.

“It would have been nice if they brought a check,” said the Marine. He paused and smiled and decided to play nice. He acknowledged the attention that follows a visit from one of the President’s cabinet secretaries.

“It helps,” DeQuattro said, looking for his next cigar.

OSDRI, VA, veterans


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here