A U.S. Army soldier bows her head in prayer at a welcome home ceremony for troops returning from Iraq on Nov. 10, 2011, at Fort Carson. More than 100 soldiers from the 549th Quartermaster Company, 43rd Sustainment Brigade returned after a seven-month deployment. They played a key role in removing excess equipment from Iraq as other troops withdrew from the region. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Ahead of Memorial Day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs launched the Mission Daybreak challenge: a $20 million competition and accelerator program aimed at fostering innovation to decrease suicide deaths among veterans.
“To end Veteran suicide, we need to use every tool available,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a Wednesday statement announcing the new initiative. “In the most recent National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report more than 45,000 American adults died by suicide — including 6,261 Veterans. That’s why Mission Daybreak is fostering solutions across a broad spectrum of focus areas to combat this preventable problem.”
Anyone experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis can reach a trained professional at Colorado Crisis Services by calling 1-844-493-8255 or texting “TALK” to 38255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Veterans can reach the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and then pressing 1. Or text 838255.
Vet Centers offer in-person services such as counseling, referrals and assessments. Colorado has Vet Centers at six locations:
Denver: 7465 East First Avenue, Suite B
Boulder: 4999 Pearl East Circle, Suite 106
Colorado Springs: 3920 N. Union Blvd, Suite 310
Fort Collins: 702 West Drake Road, Building C
Pueblo: 1515 Fortino Boulevard, Suite 130
Grand Junction: 561 25 Road, Suite 101
For phase 1 of the Mission Daybreak challenge, the VA invites organizations and individuals to submit concept papers by July 8 pitching innovative ideas to reduce veteran suicide. The VA will select 30 finalists from among the phase 1 entries to each receive $250,000 and advance to phase 2. Another 10 teams will get a $100,000 “Promise Award.”
In phase 2, the 30 finalist teams will participate in an eight-week “virtual accelerator” program where they will have access to non-public data sets, networking opportunities and mentorship resources. They’ll present their final submissions in November 2022 at a live pitch event called Demo Day. The two teams with the best pitches will each receive $3 million. Three second-place teams will each receive $1 million, and five third-place teams will each receive $500,000.
Dr. Matthew Miller, executive director for VA suicide prevention, said pitches could examine ways to incorporate artificial intelligence in serving veterans through crisis hotlines, such as the 9-8-8 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline coming online this summer. Entries could also look at using machine learning to better understand factors that put veterans at higher risk of suicide, Miller said, or address firearm safety, since firearms are used in 70% of veteran suicides.
“Individuals, entities, veterans, corporations, technology, academics, can look at these areas and say, ‘We have ideas. We have ways to do this,'” Miller said at a Wednesday news conference streamed live on YouTube. “And they can start developing and submitting concepts.”
People interested in participating in Mission Daybreak can sign up to learn more at a June 7 virtual information session.
One of the judges listed on the Mission Daybreak website has a Colorado connection: Dr. Lisa Brenner, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’s Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research, Education, and Clinical Center, known as MIRECC. Brenner is a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, psychiatry and neurology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Challenges in Colorado
Colorado faces particular challenges with veteran suicide. According to a VA fact sheet, the state’s veteran suicide rate was significantly higher than the national average in 2019. In 2019, Colorado had a rate of 43.1 suicide deaths per 100,000 veterans.
From 2018 to 2019, the national veteran suicide rate declined by 7.2% when accounting for changes in the population’s age and sex, according to the VA’s latest National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs called this drop “unprecedented across the last 20 years.” But Colorado’s suicide rate among veterans held flat from 2018 to 2019.
In 2019 — the latest year for which nationwide data is available — 170 Colorado veterans died by suicide, according to the VA.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recorded higher numbers: 221 veteran deaths in 2019 and 205 deaths in 2020.
The reason for the discrepancy is unclear, but the state uses different methodology than the VA in counting veteran suicides. CDPHE determines veteran status through a question on the death certificate, answered by the deceased person’s closest relative, which asks whether the person ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces. The VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention uses data from the Veterans Health Administration, Department of Defense personnel files and other sources, and matches it with death certificates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regardless of which agency’s records are used, the veteran suicide rate in Colorado is indisputably high.
Last year, state lawmakers tried to address the issue with Senate Bill 21-129, which set up a four-year pilot program in El Paso County for veteran suicide prevention. The bill was sponsored by two veterans: then-Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat who resigned from the Legislature to take a position at the Pentagon; and Rep. David Ortiz, a Littleton Democrat. Gov. Jared Polis signed it into law last June.
The suicide prevention program still isn’t up and running. A contract executed May 23 of this year gave UCHealth the authority to run it, according to state Behavioral Health Administration spokesperson Stefany Busch.
“They have begun work on the marketing plan and will be able to start seeing Veterans and their families soon,” Busch said in an email. “The program focuses on access to resources and alleviating issues in social determinants of health that can impact suicidality; offering therapy, community connection, crisis planning, and case management.”
Social determinants of health include environmental conditions like economic stability, access to education, and air quality, which can make people more or less susceptible to certain mental and physical illnesses.
“UCHealth is working closely with The Evaluation Center at the University of Colorado Denver to track program and individual outcomes,” Busch added.
Home to a concentration of military installations, El Paso County lost 249 veterans to suicide from 2016 through 2020 — more than any other county in the state.
During Wednesday’s news conference on Mission Daybreak, McDonough also applauded a bipartisan Senate deal on the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, also known as the PACT Act. If passed by Congress, the legislation would make post-9/11 veterans eligible for VA care for conditions caused by service-connected exposure to toxic chemicals — allowing more than 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans to access new benefits.
A similar version of the bill passed the House of Representatives in March with “yes” votes from Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Reps. Jason Crow, Diana DeGette, Joe Neguse and Ed Perlmutter. Republican U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert, Ken Buck and Doug Lamborn voted “no.” The Senate has yet to vote on the legislation.
“I know there’s still work to be done before this bill becomes law, but if it does, it would be a monumental day for veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors,” McDonough said.
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