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(Reuters) - Democratic U.S. presidential contender Elizabeth Warren vowed on Tuesday to cut the suicide rate for veterans in half within four years, as part of a plan she unveiled to help service members and their families.
Warren, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Republican President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election, said that if elected, she would tackle the problem in her first term by investing in mental healthcare, research into the causes of military suicides and providing annual mental health checks for service members.
The National Guard's suicide rate has surpassed the entire active-duty force and the reserves, as well as the civilian population.
The military has the "means and resources" to stem the tide of suicide in its ranks, but continues to struggle in search of answers, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday during a visit to Naval Station Norfolk.
Three sailors assigned to the Norfolk-based USS George H.W. Bush died of apparent suicide within days of each other in the past two weeks. The Navy said the suicides were not related, but it marked the third, fourth, and fifth crew member suicides in the past two years, said Capt. Sean Bailey, the ship's commander, who described himself as heartbroken.
Esper said he shares in the sailors' grief.
"You mourn for the families and for their shipmates," Esper said. "I wish I could tell you we have an answer to prevent future further suicides in the armed services. We don't."
'Everybody's overworked' — string of Navy suicides raises concerns over sailor stress and toxic leadership
Three sailors assigned to the same ship died in apparent suicides in the last week, leaving some asking what more leaders can do to support troops as the military grapples with rising rates of self-inflicted deaths.
Chief Electronics Technician Nuclear James Shelton and Airman Ethan Stuart died of apparent suicides on Sept. 19 in separate off-base incidents, said Cmdr. Jennifer Cragg, with Naval Air Force Atlantic. Both were assigned to the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which is undergoing maintenance in Virginia.
Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Vincent Forline, who was also assigned to the Bush, was found dead in an apparent suicide five days prior.
"My heart is broken," Capt. Sean Bailey, the Bush's commanding officer, said in a Facebook post Monday. "... We need All Hands to engage by bringing forward your suggestions and ideas for how we can work together to prevent another suicide. I want to reiterate that there is never any stigma or repercussion from seeking help."
Shelton, Stuart and Forline were the third, fourth and fifth Bush crew members to die by suicide in the last two years. Navy officials say there's no apparent connection between the three. The sailors did not serve in the same departments, Cragg said.
But others argue there is a connection: their command.
The Department of Veterans Affairs released an alarming report Friday showing that at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, with little sign that the crisis is abating despite suicide prevention being the VA's top priority.
Although the total population of veterans declined by 18% during that span of years, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide annually, according to the VA's 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.