ARLINGTON, Virginia --
Both the White House and the Defense Department, said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, have made taking care of military families a priority. Included in that "sacred obligation," he said, is an increased commitment to providing support to families who have lost a service member and destigmatizing mental health care.
"This is a national commitment, and it's on all of us," he said. "That means working alongside our friends at the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs]. That means working with lawmakers here in Washington and in state and local governments. And that means being good partners with community organizations big and small."
Austin spoke May 28 during the National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp's banquet in Arlington, Virginia. The 28th annual event was sponsored by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
The secretary explained some of the challenges faced by military families and their loved ones who serve — all challenges DOD can help with; one challenge involves mental health care.
"It ... means redoubling our efforts to reduce the stigmas on getting help and to lower the barriers and increase the access to mental health care," Austin said. "We continue our critically important work to prevent suicide within our military community and our veteran family. You have heard me say this before, and I intend to keep on saying it: mental health is health, period."
The secretary also said DOD must do more to support families who have lost a service member.
"We've got to make sure that we're doing everything we can to support those who have lost loved ones," he said. "We've got to do more to help our newly bereaved families on every level, [from] finding comfort to figuring out benefits. We know how heavy that load can be. We also have to find more ways to stand together and do whatever we can to make the load even a bit lighter."
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors provides care and assistance to families who are grieving the loss of a family member who served in the military.
TAPS is one of the organizations, Austin said, that is helping DOD meet its obligation to take care of military families.
"Last year this organization connected with more than 9,000 newly bereaved family members ... and to help on some of the worst days that anyone can go through," Austin said. "You've taken families to ball games so that they can meet one another. You've helped thousands with your training programs on grief, trauma and suicide prevention. You've provided space to support children and teenagers going through unbearable loss, and you've given people new hope and a strong community that they can rely on."
The TAPS organization, Austin said, makes a difference every day within the military community.
"It's moving, it's important, and it is inspiring," he said. "Thank you for all of your hard work."
Austin also noted this is the first Memorial Day to follow the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"This year, I am especially mindful that we're observing the first Memorial Day since the end of America's longest war, and we remember the 2,461 American service members and personnel who fell in Afghanistan serving their country," he said. "For surviving family members, we know that grief is with you every day and not just on Memorial Day. We know that, after losing a loved one, it can feel like time grinds to a halt."