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Lawmakers Urge Pentagon Chief to Save Suicide Prevention Program

A powerful group of lawmakers is asking Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to reconsider the Pentagon’s recent decision to eliminate funding for Vets4Warriors.

NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 16:  Newly elected U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaks after winning a special election on October 16, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. Booker, the current mayor of Newark, New Jersey, defeated Republican Steve Lonegan to replace Frank Lautenberg who died in June.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 16: Newly elected U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaks after winning a special election on October 16, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey. Booker, the current mayor of Newark, New Jersey, defeated Republican Steve Lonegan to replace Frank Lautenberg who died in June. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A powerful group of lawmakers is asking Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to reconsider the Pentagon’s recent decision to eliminate funding for Vets4Warriors, a highly-regarded program that connected troubled troops with veterans who came from the same military world, spoke the same language, and had often confronted the same issues.

The Defense Department’s move to shutter the program was first reported by Foreign Policy. If Carter doesn’t intervene, Vets4Warriors’s call center in suburban New Jersey will soon close, forcing the layoffs of more than 40 veterans currently working there as counselors.

In the new letter, New Jersey lawmakers from both parties — including the state’s two senators, Democrats Robert Menendez and Cory Booker — urged Carter to take another look at the decision to close Vets4Warriors. Menendez is the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Booker is a rising star in Democratic circles.

“We request that the Department of Defense provide our offices with a detailed explanation and analysis of the decision to suspend funding for the Vets4Warriors program without public notice,” the lawmakers wrote. “We strongly urge you to reconsider this decision, or at the very least, ensure that there is a public process to determine Vets4Warriors’s effectiveness prior to closure of the program.”

Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said the department had received the letter and would be responding to it, but had no other immediate comment.

At issue is the future of Vets4Warriors, which has been operated since its establishment in 2010 ago by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. In 2014, Vets4Warriors personnel took more than 27,000 calls; over the past three years, it has taken more than 110,000 calls. Tens of thousands of veterans have subsequently received some form of assistance from the five-year-old program. Its contract has ended, and the Pentagon has opted not to renew it. Instead, the program will be folded into the Defense Department’s much-larger Military OneSource initiative, which provides a variety of services for troops and their families.

Many military mental health experts question why a successful program — whose entire budget is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars the Pentagon spends each year on counseling and other services — would be shuttered while the military’s suicide epidemic continues to rage.

The lawmakers behind the new letter — which also include New Jersey Democratic Reps. Bill Pascrell, Jr. and Frank Pallone and Republican Reps. Frank LoBiondo and Tom MacArthur — cited those grim numbers as part of their argument to give the program a second look.

“There has been a troubling increase in active-duty military suicides after 9/11, eventually hitting a peak of 319 in 2012,” they wrote. “Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 3,000 active-duty personnel, along with hundreds of Reserve and National Guard personnel, have taken their own lives.”

In a statement last week explaining the decision, Seal said the move was “very simply a decision about providing the best possible benefit to our service members and their families, while also ensuring that we are responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

“Since we can provide improved peer-to-peer support using existing resources via Military OneSource, there is no need to contract with an additional company,” she said at the time.

In an interview last week, the Vets4Warriors’s founder, Christopher Kosseff, said the Pentagon decision was “just shocking to me, and just a total disappointment.”

“They just don’t understand what we do, and how different we are,” he said, referring to the Pentagon’s decision to merge his program into Military OneSource. “It’s really a false economy to think they can do it and do it cheaply.”

If the lawmakers get their way, Carter himself will make the final call on its future.

Read the letter here:

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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