BY DAN BOREN AND CHRIS MEEK
As important as it is on this Veterans Day to thank those brave men and women who selflessly served in defense of our freedom and liberties, our obligation does not and must not end there.
Much attention has been placed on the backlog and wait times for veterans seeking Department of Veterans Administration care. But we should also recognize that the VA cannot care for our veterans alone; we all have a calling to serve.
Today, there is a mental health crisis in the active duty and veteran communities. While there have been valiant efforts to address the veteran suicide crisis since the 1980s, an average of 20 American veterans are lost to suicide every day.
We’ve lost more Vietnam-era veterans to suicide than there are names on the Vietnam Wall. The generation of post-9/11 veterans is on track to reach the same grim milestone if we fail to find a solution to un-remediated post-traumatic stress, which one study identified as the single most common underlying factor among veterans who consider or attempt suicide.
Fortunately, solutions are emerging that will deliver significant treatment advances while simultaneously overcoming barriers common to younger military personnel. One groundbreaking approach uses virtual reality technology in a clinical setting. It is the result of a collaboration, called The StrongMind Alliance, between four major universities, multiple federal agencies and SoldierStrong, a nonprofit organization that provides revolutionary medical devices and treatments to America’s wounded veterans.
The system’s research, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, offers 14 “worlds” that recreate a range of combat scenarios that can be customized by doctors and clinicians working with patients dealing with PTS.
This summer, SoldierStrong pledged to donate 10 virtual reality systems to VA medical centers across the country. Working in concert with the VA’s Innovation Network, SoldierStrong has already delivered the first nine StrongMind VR Protocol packages. It will be instructive to see how this promising technology changes lives.
While post-traumatic stress has been with us since ancient times, there are genuine reasons to believe that American innovation and ingenuity can finally relegate it to the history books. We can make a life-changing difference for injured veterans in other ways, too. The first is by encouraging our elected leaders to invest more in our veterans, particularly through innovation and revolutionary technology.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) was founded in 1958 to “make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.” DARPA researchers are the inventors of things like the internet, the global positioning system and many other transformational scientific advances.
DARPA spent more than $3.1 billion in 2018 to make the world a safer place and protect our service personnel while making them more lethal to those who threaten our security. Yet, its commitment to scientific advancement ends when our military personnel return home and often when they need it most.
DARPA researchers have already created battlefield technology that was the basis for an exoskeleton that allows paralyzed people to stand and walk again. They’ve developed technology that allows prosthetic arms to replicate the full range of mobility of “original equipment.” The list of scientific achievements that could help our veterans is long, but there is no DARPA for veterans.
There’s a tremendous opportunity, even in these hyper-partisan times, for Congress and the administration to mobilize DARPA’s resources to help our veterans. It’s an investment that would pay huge dividends in their productivity, well-being, and human dignity.
The second way we can all make a difference is by becoming more involved in our communities. We can all become more involved in bettering the lives of wounded veterans. We can lift them up by volunteering with organizations dedicated to this mission, lending a helping hands as friends and neighbors and, especially, by speaking up to our elected leaders.
In Oklahoma and across the nation, organizations and individuals are doing their part to give back to those who gave so much to serve our nation because they know veterans should be honored not just on this special day, but every day. We encourage everyone to follow in their footsteps.
Boren represented Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District from 2005-2013 and serves on the advisory board of SoldierStrong. Meek is co-founder of SoldierStrong. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.