WASHINGTON (AP) - President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday aimed at stemming a persistently high number of veteran suicides, urging expanded outreach by awarding grants to community programs.
The order creates a Cabinet-level task force that will seek to develop a national roadmap for suicide prevention, bringing in state and local organizations to raise awareness among the high-risk group. It directs the task force led by Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to finalize a plan in 12 months.
"Veterans suicide is a tragedy of staggering proportions," Trump said at a signing ceremony surrounded by military families and veterans' organizations. "Today we can help end this crisis."
He said the problem of veteran suicide can only be solved if the entire country works together to build communities that support and protect veterans from the first moment they return to civilian life.
"They courageously fulfill their duties to our nation, now we must fulfill our duties to them," Trump said.
Currently, about 20 veterans die by suicide each day, about 1.5 times higher than those who haven't served in the military. The government says about 14 of those 20 were not under VA care, pointing to a need for improved outreach.
According to the White House, the new task force will look to create a grant system similar to the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program, which provides funding to state and local programs. The effort, which is being dubbed the PREVENTS Initiative, will also aim to better coordinate research on suicide prevention across agencies, including Veterans Affairs, Defense and Homeland Security. PREVENTS stands for "President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide."
The White House did not indicate the expected costs of the proposed grants, which would require congressional approval.
Trump has sought to boost suicide prevention, part of his campaign pledge to improve health care for veterans. Still, the order follows a report by the Government Accountability Office last December that found the VA had left millions of dollars unspent that were available for suicide prevention efforts. The report said VA had spent just $57,000 out of $6.2 million available for paid media, such as social-media postings. The VA has blamed the missteps on leadership turmoil at the VA that has since stabilized now that Wilkie is VA secretary.
*The Associated Press contributed to this report.