"This is the first step," said John McHugh, as he signed a directive Tuesday. Mental health for veterans will be a top priority and it couldn't have come sooner.
Last week the VA released an alarming report, although suicides among veterans are down since 1999, the military is reporting a 20 percent increase in just the last five years.
Most interesting say mental health officials, it's not the veterans you see coming home, it's the veterans many have forgotten.
"Fifty to 59-year-olds accounted for the largest number of veteran suicides, and that includes our Vietnam vets," said Dr. Cynthia Holm, Chief of Behavior Health at the Walla Walla VA Medical Center.
The mental health of our Vietnam vets has hit the headlines; the picture of an old man taking hostage a young boy. It's a problem, said Dr. Holm, one that could be prevented by getting them through the front door.
"It starts with the VA and with primary care," she said. "The VA is a leader in incorporating mental health with primary care." Adding they do screening annually for PTSD and depression, a nationwide service that includes assessment for risk of suicide if a screen is positive.
"In 2006 we had 2,500 mental health patients at our sitesand in 2012 we had 5,000 so we're almost doubling," she said.
Although many of those using the Walla Walla facilities are older vets, there's still a learning curve said Holm. PTSD is a household term today, but it wasn't 40 years ago. Many vets aren't reaching out for help, not realizing they qualify for services and others are on the streets, unable to be found.
"If you think you're experiencing any of the symptoms of PTSD, depression, anger, nightmares, anxiety; there's hope for you here."
Here for the Tri-Cities could be closer than you think. Richland, Yakima and Boardman all have facilities utilizing the technology keen to younger veterans - video conferencing.
"It's like Skype, but more secure," said Holm.
"Some vets might not be able to get to Seattle or Portland, through TeleHealth we're able to get them the help they need, when they previously would have gone untreated," said Cameron Sims, VA TeleHeath coordinator.
Getting those untreated is key they both say when battling this war.
"We want to learn the lessons from our past and embrace our veterans," said Holm.
For more information on Jonathan M. Wainwright Medical Center in Walla Walla, click here: http://www.wallawalla.va.gov/
And if you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, there is a crisis line that can help specifically veterans. The Veterans Crisis Line is 24/7, available through online chat, phone or text, and veterans have the opportunity to speak directly to another veteran: