Our Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) are leading on the frontlines to ensure that our nation follows through with its promise to take care of those who have served us. They offer a unique perspective on how Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) policies affect our veterans and what changes need to be made to improve services. As Congress continues to modernize VA and strengthen the delivery of care, accountability and benefits our veterans earned, the recommendations of our VSOs are invaluable.

Arkansas members of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars recently traveled to Washington to reaffirm their support for our veterans and advocate for policies on their behalf. One of the topics we discussed in detail was mental illness in our veteran community.

In Arkansas, veterans represent about eight percent of the population, but about 20 percent of suicides. We must take action to change this tragic reality. We need to improve access to meaningful mental health services and strengthen suicide prevention awareness among our veterans.

Mental health is a battlefield that many of our men and women who served in our nation’s uniform find themselves facing here at home. These invisible injuries are why we struggle to identify at-risk individuals. Two years ago Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act to deliver help to our veterans, but this was only a first step.

We need to continue making improvements to ensure that struggling veterans have access to the VA programs that have proven to work, and provide the personnel, services and tools to support them. Appointment cancelations with mental health providers have left veterans waiting for up to six months for an appointment. This unfortunate reality is unacceptable. These appointments are much too critical to delay. Sadly, we are seeing the tremendous shortage of mental health providers in our nation impact veterans across the country.

Another challenge to determine veterans who need assistance is that some of the most vulnerable people we need to reach aren’t formally affiliated with the VA and may be unknown to veteran groups in their communities. VSOs have made great progress by initiating their own programs in order to recognize those veterans in need.

In testimony before a joint hearing of the Senate and House VA Committees earlier this month, VFW Commander Brian Duffy said its community based program is making a difference. “No group can relate to a veteran in distress as easy or effectively as a fellow veteran,” he told committee members.

Peer-to-peer support programs have proven successful for VSOs and I believe the VA can have the same success. VA should invest in expanding its peer-to-peer efforts.

The input from our VSOs is vital to my colleagues and me as we improve VA health care delivery. When it comes to our nation’s veterans, their commitment to our country is without question, and our commitment to them must be the same.